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Rocket science: how Isro flew to Mars cheap

Hindustan Times | ByPramit Pal Chaudhuri, New Delhi
Nov 06, 2013 12:23 PM IST

Isro is widely cited as an example of 'frugal engineering' -- the Indian ability to produce high-end technology at eye-poppingly low costs. A US state department scientific adviser once said that Isro had reduced satellite assembly costs to a tenth of Nasa’s.

India’s successful Mangalyaan launch is as much a financial accomplishment as a technical milestone. The entire Mars mission has cost the Indian Space Research Organisation a mere around Rs. 450 crore and took 15 months to put together.

Much of the Martian price tag is for ground stations and relay upgrades that will be used for other Isro projects. The actual satellite costs a mere $25 million ( Rs. 153 crore), says Pallav Bagla of Science magazine. Comparison: Nasa’s similar MAVEN Mars project will cost 10 times more and will take three times longer.

Isro is widely cited as an example of “frugal engineering” — the Indian ability to produce high-end technology at eye-poppingly low costs. A US state department scientific adviser once said that Isro had reduced satellite assembly costs to a tenth of Nasa’s.

Isro’s accomplishments are remarkable given its tiny budget: $700 million (Rs. 4,270 crore) in 2012-13. Despite a space programme whose financial base is the ninth largest, India is generally rated the world’s number six space power.

Of this, only 7% is allotted for planetary exploration. Isro’s prime directive has and continues to be the finding of technical means to support socio-economic goals such as education, medicine, water and disaster management.

Isro also defrays government support through a commercial arm, Antrix. Through the sale of satellite imagery, satellite launches and so on, Antrix earned a pre-tax Rs. 2 billion in 2010 alone.

Isro officials privately say they have utilitarian reasons for symbolically exciting projects like the Mars mission: it helps them “recruit engineering talent” despite the agency’s government salary structure.

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Euroconsult, the world’s leading space consultancy firm, said the United States spent $43 billion (Rs 262,300 crore)in space in 2011, more than 60% of the global total.

China officially has a space budget of only $500 million (Rs. 3,050 crore), a figure widely disbelieved. Euroconsult says China’s budget is closer to $1.3 billion (Rs. 7,930 crore). And though Beijing has a lead over New Delhi when it comes to astronauts, its only Mars mission, the Yinghuo 1, used a Russian rocket, a Kazakh launchpad and never left Earth orbit.

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Video: India’s Mars mission 'Mangalyaan' lifts off



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