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Mangalyaan: meet the men behind India’s Mars Mission

An exclusive report from ISRO’s inner circle on what’s driving India’s indigenous mission to the Red Planet, making us only the fourth country in the world and first Asian nation to accomplish such a feat.

brunch Updated: Dec 14, 2013 22:22 IST
Kushalrani Gulab
Kushalrani Gulab
Hindustan Times
Indian Space Research Organisation,ISRO,Mars Orbiter Mission

Do you know or remember what it is to love your job? To be involved in it with such dedication that your workplace becomes the place where you live, that every fibre of your being is focused on one thing and one thing alone - that the job is done and done perfectly?

If you don't know how this feels, here's a suggestion: Take a trip to Bengaluru. Lurk outside one of the several workplaces staffed by scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). (Do this discreetly. The security personnel are not very keen on unauthorised lurkers.) Then look at the way they walk: Straight backs. Heads high. Filled with purpose. And then go back to your own workplace, inspired.

You know, of course, why the people at ISRO are so conspicuously in love with their jobs, possibly more at this time than any other. Their spacecraft for the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), India's first attempt at an interplanetary mission, is well on its way to the Red Planet. It left Earth's sphere of influence (the area of space over which our home planet exerts a gravitational pull) on December 4, making us only the fourth country in the world and the first Asian nation to accomplish such a feat. Not to mention the first country in the world to get it right on the first attempt. And all this in 15 months.

MOM is now travelling around the sun on a path and velocity that will, in September 2014, first have it overtake Mars on that planet's own route around the sun, then slow down and allow itself to be captured by Mars's gravity as the planet catches up with it.

India has made and launched rockets and satellites for so long that we've taken them for granted. But India launching a fully indigenous mission to the moon with Chandrayaan in 2008? Completing that mission not s without a hitch but also with knowledge that has eluded other missions since the Soviets' first ever successful moon mission in 1959? And now heading out of the reasonably well known turf around our planet with an indigenous mission to Mars? The idea seems like something out of a sci-fi novel.

But this is not science fiction. Far from it. This is science at its most glorious, allowing Indian scientists to do what they do best: find solutions to challenges they only dreamed of before. As the fascinating Facebook page of ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission tells us: "Kashmir to Kanyakumari! Imagine throwing a peanut from an express train, speeding out of Jammu Tawi railway station, in such a way that it should land in the pocket of a captain steering a ferry zipping into the jetty at Kanyakumari. That's simpler than making MOM orbit Mars!" If you think that's an exaggeration, you are soooo wrong.

Taking a short tiffin break in the canteen at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) office in Bengaluru, a group of scientists is having a tough time trying to explain just what it takes to pull off an operation like MOM. As BS Chandrashekar, director, ISTRAC, says, "In one sense, it is not very different from ISRO's other missions." But because MOM is ISRO's first ever interplanetary mission, it has challenges these scientists, who've been with ISRO for years, have never faced before.

It called for new types of technology, points out Dr V Kesavaraju, post-launch mission director, MOM, who has a 30-year history with the organisation. "And," says P Robert, operations director, MOM, who's been with ISRO since 1990, "Though every mission has its own complexities and challenges that expand our horizons, MOM gives us a sense of satisfaction over lessons we've learned, and a sense of excitement, and a big boost of confidence for the next challenge we face."

Consider its elements. You need a rocket (or launch vehicle) that will take the spacecraft out to precisely where it must begin its journey. You need a spacecraft that must - for the 300 days of the journey from Earth to the Mars orbit, plus roughly 180 days to accomplish the mission's objectives once there - withstand a hostile environment. This includes solar winds, harmful radiation, unimaginable temperatures.

The spacecraft must also carry enough propellant to power itself when required to move from one trajectory to another. And it must also be able to correct itself autonomously should anything go wrong, because as it gets further away from Earth, you will no longer be able to control it in real time. Signals to and from the spacecraft will take longer and longer to be transmitted, with a lag (known as time drift) of 12-and-a-half minutes each way when it's actually in the Mars orbit. On the ground, you need a deep space network (powerful antennas) spread all across the world, to be able to monitor the spacecraft, receive its signals and send it commands. You also need people and machines to process, distribute and store the information that the scientific equipment in the spacecraft sends back.

'Any space mission is complex, we work like surgeons, totally focussed on the job' from an interview with Dr K Radhakrishan, chairman, ISRO

On ISRO's work culture: We are a learning organisation, so after success, you won't see great jubilation - we just gather together and discuss our observations on what to do better next time. And after a failure, we discuss what corrections to make and get into action. We learn from failure and success and institute our corrections. Any space mission is complex, and we work like surgeons, totally focused on the job to do. If you think about victory or failure, you will lose your focus.

On taking science to the people: We are accountable. We can't do this as a closed-door affair. The launch and the Trans Mars Injection (the manoeuvre that shifted the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft out of the parking orbit around the earth and into the carefully plotted trajectory leading to Mars) touched the hearts of the common man, who watched it as closely as he watches a cricket match. Chandrayaan (the lunar mission) meant a lot to the people, because it was part of a voyage and it captured their imaginations. And now we are getting into interplanetary space, with all the pride associated with it. That's why we started our Facebook page - ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission. We began it on October 22 and it has nearly 2.9 lakh people on it now. That's 2.9 lakh people discussing science - that is an achievement.

And these are only the physical requirements. You also need to figure out the path that the spacecraft must take from Earth to Mars. This is not just a matter of aiming the spacecraft in the general direction of the Red Planet. Like the Earth, Mars also revolves around the sun, so the challenge is to get one moving object (the spacecraft) away from another moving object (Earth) in such a way as to meet a third moving object (Mars) in the most efficient manner possible, through space that is so immense that there's a very real chance that your spacecraft can get lost. So velocity is important (velocity is not the same as speed. It's the speed at which something moves away from its original position in a particular direction), and so is timing. Neither can be off, everything must be completely precise.

And then MOM, as a mission, had its own particular challenge to face. The geometry of the sun, Earth and Mars is such that a mission like this can only take place once in 26 months - meaning that when financial approval came in August 2012 (two years after feasibility studies and consultations), the team at ISRO, led by its chairman, Dr K Radhakrishnan, had to make a decision. Their first opportunity to head to Mars would be in November 2013, the next in 2016 and the next after that in 2018 - which would it be? "At ISRO, we create our own schedules, no one dictates to us," says Dr Radhakrishnan who's been an ISRO stalwart since he joined the organisation with a Bachelor's degree in engineering in 1971. "We chose 2013."

That gave the team 15 months to conceive, design, create, test and launch this mission - a mission that is a first for everybody.

"This is not a simple operation," says Robert, in what must be the understatement of the year. "We're doing this for the first time, so there are many things to observe and correct. It's a very close operation so there's very little margin for error."

"But we are ready for it," adds BN Ramakrishna, deputy operations director, MOM, who, as a student, had been a huge fan of sci-fi films and always longed to work for ISRO. "Whatever we've dreamt, we have achieved."

Why should MOM orbit Mars anyway? As the spacecraft zips across skies at the rate of 370 lakh km a day on its way to the rendezvous with the Red Planet, down here on Earth, India is struggling with enormous, scary problems. So why are we looking out there instead of in here? And what are we looking for anyway?

Well, the mission has two objectives. The first is to test and extend our own technological capabilities, because, as Dr Radhakrishnan says, Indian space research has never been static."Since the space programme took off 50 years ago (the first sounding rocket, carrying scientific instruments, flew up from Thumba, the spaceport near Thiruvananthapuram on November 21, 1963), we have advanced and had several turning points, including the lunar mission Chandrayaan, and now MOM," says Dr Radhakrishnan. "The staging period of any space programme is long, so one needs to have a long-term plan that delivers technology that is contemporary even 20 years later. This provides clarity in the organisation. You always know what you're doing next."

The second objective of the mission is to extend our science knowledge - knowledge that once won, can be applied to situations in India, and may help us deal with our huge and scary problems. This was the objective of the Indian space programme from the start - the idea was not so much to aim for glory as it was to aim for solutions. "This vision that Dr Vikram Sarabhai (the founder of the Indian space programme) enunciated, has been stood by throughout the organisation and over time," says Dr Radhakrishnan. "Our programme is application-centric and people-centric."

So what are we looking for, science-wise? At this point, it's just exploration, pure and simple. "Searching is part of the human condition," says Dr M Annadurai, the man who was in charge of Chandrayaan-1 and now Chandrayaan-2 (the moon landing mission), and is also programme director of MOM.
"Exploration, search, whether internal or external, that is what makes us human. The whole of science is driven by questions and the mother of all questions is: who are we? And for that answer, we have to see what's out there. If there once was life on Mars, why is there no life there now? If there is life only on Earth, why are we here?"

These are big questions that we never stop asking ourselves, but it's unlikely we'll get those answers in 16 months. Meanwhile, the MOM is carrying five payloads (payload being a fancy word for scientific equipment) that address some rather more specific concerns. First, there's the Lyman Alpha Photometer, meant to help us understand why Mars lost its atmosphere. "It once had a thick atmosphere and water flowed, today it's a cold desert with a very thin atmosphere," explains BR Guruprasad, scientist and public relations officer at ISRO. Second, the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser, meant to study the atmosphere. Third, the Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer, meant to study the surface of the planet. Fourth, the Methane Sensor for Mars, meant to show us if the methane on Mars has a geological source or a biological one. "If it's biological, everyone will jump, because that means there once was life on Mars," explains Guruprasad. And last but not least, the Mars Colour Camera, capable of taking pictures of the surface of Mars to help us study landforms that are the products of processes that have been at work over years.

Naturally, none of these payloads can do much till MOM locks into the Mars orbit, but the camera was tested while MOM was orbiting Earth, sending back a picture of India shot from 68,000 km above sea level and sending patriotic feelings down here on Earth. The layman's patriotism, however, is not quite the same as the scientists' pride.

"All I can say is that I'm living my dream," says S Arunan, project director of MOM, who credits the novels of PG Wodehouse, the late humour writer, with saving his sanity while he worked on the mission. "I read his books to destress, read them again and again," he says. "I was slightly sceptical when we were given such a short time to realise the mission, but we conceived, designed, fabricated, tested and launched it, everything according to schedule and planned performance… I find real happiness in this, compared to previous missions. For MOM, we chose to play our genius."

For Dr Annadurai, the achievement of MOM is all about confidence. When he made a presentation in Ahmedabad about the mission 15 months ago, he realised that among the audience was a project director from MAVEN, the US space agency NASA's Mars mission also scheduled for November, 2013. "He was surprised. His mission was being tested as I spoke, but what I was showing the audience was only the drawing board," says Dr Annadurai. "He thought I was joking. How could we possibly pull off such a mission with only one tenth of the money NASA was spending, within one fifth of their time frame - and for the first time ever at that! But now both missions are on their way to Mars." But there's no sense of rivalry with other space agencies, says Chandrashekar of ISTRAC. "We just want to get our mission right. We have a task to perform - that is in itself exciting," he says. "You really don't need a feeling of competition to motivate you. The excitement is more than enough."

Spaced out
What's In a name?
After the moon mission named Chandrayaan, it seems natural to call the Mars Orbiter Mission Mangalyaan. But that's not how the scientists refer to it. "We call it MOM - that's M-O-M, not 'mom' like 'mother'," says BR Guruprasad, scientist and public relations officer at ISRO. But it's okay to call MOM Mangalyaan if you want to, says Dr M Annadurai, programme director, MOM. "We all have pet names for things. Go ahead and call it Mangalyaan if you like."

Why Mars, why not Venus?
Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus, that book of relationship advice by John Gray, has a lot to answer for. On ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission Facebook page, there's some amount of good-natured ribbing about MOM's alleged sexism. But really, why is Mars the top target for exploration, not Venus, which is closer? Well, says Guruprasad, Venus has a surface temperature of 450 degrees C, its atmospheric pressure is 100 times what it is on Earth and its atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide. "So if you went near Venus or landed on it, you'd be incinerated, crushed and asphyxiated," laughs Guruprasad. "It is hell."

Mars, on the other hand, continues Guruprasad, has a thin atmosphere and is a lot less hot than Antarctica! "Also, it's been part of human imagination since Galileo's observations in the 17th century. After so-called 'canals' were spotted there, people began to think that intelligent life exists on Mars." Though that thought changed over the years, in 1971 when Mariner 9 started circling Mars, it showed Olympus, a volcano three times the height of Mount Everest, polar ice caps and features found in deltas - thus indicating that water might have flowed there a long time ago. "So what happened?" asks Guruprasad. "Did life originate there?"

What's an orbiter and how is it different from other missions?
An orbiter is meant simply to orbit a planet or other astronomical objects like the moon, carrying scientific instruments that explore objectives from a distance. It isn't meant to land on the planet. For a landing, a different kind of spacecraft is needed. Chandrayaan 1 was an orbiter as is MOM. Chandrayaan 2, on the other hand, is meant to land on the moon.

What's next?
Well, ISRO is in the process of developing spacesuits for a manned mission in the future, according to Dr K Radhakrishnan, chairman, ISRO. But so far, there's no launch vehicle capable of carrying humans. It's a logical step however. First there are orbiters, then landings, then manned missions.

Photos by Satish Bate

From HT Brunch, December 15

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First Published: Dec 14, 2013 16:33 IST