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India's Mars mission isn't about science, but spectacle

November 19, 2013 10:53 IST

The Mars mission is overwhelmingly irrelevant to space science and won't advance the frontiers of knowledge, says Praful Bidwai.

MangalyaanMilitant-nationalist euphoria is invariably conjured up whenever India conducts a seemingly sophisticated scientific experiment or makes lethal bombs, missiles or submarines.

India's entry into a supposedly select or exclusive high-technology club is uncritically celebrated, although the club's members are willing to rain mass death upon innocent civilians -- as are all nuclear weapons States -- or seek a fig-leaf of legitimacy to cover up heinous crimes against their own citizens.

The hype over the Indian Space Research Organisation's Mars Orbiter Mission Mangalyaan carries this illogic to an extreme. We are told the mission is not open to criticism. Whether it fails or succeeds is irrelevant.

What matters is that it will stir the 'national spirit' and inspire our youth. No price is too high to pay for this, certainly not the mission's estimated cost of Rs 460 crores/Rs 4.6 billion.

At the risk of being branded a spoilsport, this column argues that the Mars mission is overwhelmingly irrelevant to space science and won't advance the frontiers of knowledge. It will divert attention from the real technological challenges facing the Indian space programme, and will further distort our science and technology priorities.

India's presumed gains from the mission in 'international prestige' will prove minuscule and ephemeral. Worse, the mission has nasty military implications. It will draw India into a dangerous missile race and space rivalry with China.

The mission is thus vulnerable to serious criticism quite independently of the admittedly small Rs 460-crore bill. Put bluntly, it is a waste of time and energy.

The media declared the mission successful even before Mangalyaan left the earth's gravity-field. But the spacecraft failed to reach the planned apogee (maximum height) of 100,000 km after the first three orbits around earth. ISRO didn't anticipate the glitch, but says it has fixed it.

However, the real problems lie ahead: In raising the spacecraft's orbit to 200,000 km, flinging it into inter-planetary space by December 1, and placing it in an orbit around Mars next September.

As the partially-failed 2008-2009 Chadrayaan moon mission showed, ISRO hasn't mastered the technologies involved in such complex manoeuvres. Its past claims to the contrary proved wrong, as we see below. So the possibility of major snags in the Mangalyaan mission can't be dismissed.

Mars missions worldwide have had a 50 per cent-plus failure rate. Even Japan and China failed to place orbiters around Mars. ISRO hurriedly developed Mangalyaan in just 15 months, whereas NASA or the European Space Agency's development time is 36 to 48 months -- despite the fact that its spacecraft, unlike ISRO's, mainly use previously-validated hardware.

Even if all goes according to plan, Mangalyaan will be placed in a 366 km x 80,000 km orbit that is so distant from Mars that it can observe very little, not even a fraction of what the US and European Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Express have done.

Mangalyaan weighs 1,350 kg, but only carries a small scientific payload weighing just 13 kg, compared to the Mars Express's 116 kg.

This paucity of instrumentation severely limits the extent and quality of Mangalyaan's observations. It cannot add significantly to what is already known about Martian topography or atmosphere.

The Global Surveyor took over 600 million readings of surface elevations. Mangalyaan cannot even take a tiny fraction of this.

The US Curiosity -- which landed and roved on Mars -- could not find methane even in the parts-per-million range. It would be a miracle if Mangalyaan, a distant orbiter, finds methane traces. Methane's presence would possibly, but not necessarily, suggest the existence of biological life.

Mangalyaan's limitations basically arise from ISRO's failure to complete the development of a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, GSLV, which can place heavy (2,000 kg-plus) satellites into a high orbit.

Despite working on the GSLV for 15 years, ISRO has not succeeded in operationalising it. Its test-flights have repeatedly failed. The last one had to be abandoned in August.

Instead of completing the GSLV's development and launching a bigger spacecraft which could carry a weightier and richer scientific payload, ISRO hurriedly used the much less powerful Polar SLV to launch Mangalyaan.

But the PSLV is only designed to put (small) satellites into a low-earth orbit. This greatly limited the speed Mangalyaan could acquire and constricted its abilities.

No less than former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair has criticised the Mars mission as 'useless' and a 'showpiece event' meant to cover up the GSLV programme's glitches and failures. He believes ISRO should concentrate on 'practical missions' instead of 'spending money on nothing'. According to him, no 'new technology is involved' in Mangalyaan.

Put simply, India's Mars mission isn't about science. It is about creating a spectacle. ISRO's only possible gain from it would be to develop familiarity with deep space communication technology used to command the spacecraft.

Given the long distance between Earth and Mars, it would take six to 42 minutes (depending on Mangalyaan's position) for radio signals to travel to Mission Control.

Even here, ISRO will be dependent on help from NASA's network of satellites and antennae based in Spain, Australia and the US to provide navigation and tracking support. Such cooperation has been in existence since the 2008 launch of the Chandrayaan-I moon orbiter, when ISRO flew two NASA instruments.

Whether ISRO can itself develop such capability remains an open question.

At any rate, giving the GSLV top priority makes rational sense. It will not only furnish the basis of ISRO's future programmes to develop new capabilities, but also allow it to tap into the global $2 billion market for commercial communications satellite launches.

Another priority for ISRO is to analyse and resolve the problems that plagued Chandrayaan-I. Contrary to hype, the mission did not fulfil its stated goals. It was abandoned in just 10 months, instead of the planned two years -- unlike most orbiters which fulfil or exceed their duration.

There were early snags with Chandrayaan-I's thermal systems, which caused overheating. Even more serious problems developed in its navigation system, which crippled its capacity to determine its orientation.

Then, its main sensor and computer packed up, and ground control lost contact with Chandrayaan-I, for reasons which ISRO has failed to investigate or explain.

Surely, it is incumbent upon ISRO to resolve these issues rather before rushing into a complicated mission like Mangalyaan. But it seems to have been bitten by the publicity bug.

Spectacular missions like Mangalyaan and India's recent launches of military and surveillance satellites have another negative consequence. These raise concerns in China about India's space ambitions and prompt a competitive response: Constructing our own comprehensive power. It would be unwise for India to get into a space and anti-satellite, ASAT, missile race with China.

Yet, the danger is real. In 2007, China destroyed an old satellite with ASAT. India too has since tried to develop ASAT capability. Defence Research and Development Organisation chief V K Saraswat has repeatedly stated this. At the time of the Agni-V launch in April 2012, he said the missile delivers the boosting capability needed for ASAT weapons. He had made similar statements in 2010.

India is trying to integrate a Ballistic Missile Defence, BMD, kill vehicle into its missiles with a view to developing an exo-atmospheric ASAT capacity. It has conducted several test-flights of its BMD system wherein an attacker missile at an altitude of 120 km was destroyed with an interceptor missile. It is now aiming for higher altitudes.

India-China rivalry will further militarise space, a process recklessly begun by the US, which unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 to develop BMDs which can kill a missile in space before it re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

India for decades opposed the militarisation of space. It is now silent on the issue and is trying to get BMD technology from the US and Israel.

No less important is the military angle of ISRO's work -- beyond benign, peaceful telecom satellites. India's space and missile programmes are Siamese Twins. ISRO's SLV rockets form the first stage of the Agni series of nuclear-capable missiles.

The two long shared a propellant factory. ISRO has launched a number of communications and spy satellites for the armed services too.

Further expansion in ISRO's clout thus has military implications. ISRO, with the Department of Atomic Energy and DRDO, already soaks up an unconscionable two-thirds of India's S&T spending. Diverting yet more funds to ISRO's fanciful projects means starving Indian science of resources and speeding up its decline in global terms.

That decline has been stark. For decades, India was the Third World's unquestioned 'science superpower'. In 1980, it globally held the 8th position in the number of papers (about 15,000) published in peer-reviewed journals, while China with under 1,000 papers was a distant No 15.

By 2000, China moved to No 9, with almost twice as many papers as India, which now stands at No 15.

Since then, China's output has risen 600 per cent, but India's is only 30 per cent. India now faces tough competition even from Brazil and Taiwan, not to mention South Korea, Australia and The Netherlands. Reversing this demands a massive shift in India's S&T priorities. The Mars mission will impede that shift.

Praful Bidwai