Why Mars?

ISRO should explore new frontiers, not replicate what's been done by others.

It's not always a great idea to ask questions during a countdown. More so when it's a mission to Mars by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) at a time when the dominant mood in the country is one of gloom. But ask we must, given how ISRO has been one of Indian science's few success stories. Despite and because of its recent string of failures.

Indeed, one of the biggest technology priorities for ISRO should be to complete the development of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The GSLV, which has been under development for more than a decade, has held up ISRO's progress in earth science, space science and human spaceflight. Since the GSLV is not operational, ISRO is constrained to use the much less powerful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) to further its ambitions in space. The PSLV can launch about 3,250 kilogrammes to low Earth orbit (LEO). To put this in the context of the capability of launch vehicles, this is less than 1/25 of the largest launch vehicle, the Saturn V, which launched astronauts to the moon. Launch vehicles used for planetary missions are significantly more powerful than the PSLV. The Atlas V, which was used to launch the Curiosity rover, can deliver three to six times the mass to LEO. ISRO has taken more than 15 years to develop the GSLV. Compare this to the time taken by other organisations to develop similar launch vehicles — a startup company called SpaceX started from scratch and operationalised the Falcon 9, which can deliver about two times the mass the GSLV can to LEO, in about seven years.

A possible priority for ISRO should have been to follow up Chandrayaan-1, with which it made significant progress in planetary exploration, with a more capable lunar mission. Contrary to popular perception, Chandrayaan-1 did not fulfil its design requirements. The spacecraft did not complete its nominal (planned) mission of two years — it ended in less than a year. A majority of orbiters meet or exceed the duration of their nominal mission. From the outset, there were thermal problems that caused the spacecraft to overheat. Raising its orbit towards the end of the mission did not prevent this. There were serious problems with the navigational system, which crippled the spacecraft's capability to determine its orientation in space. ISRO also lost contact with Chandrayaan, the reason for which could not be unambiguously established. An argument can be made that ISRO should have embarked on Chandrayaan-2, to address the shortcomings of Chandrayaan-1, before embarking on Mangalyaan, which inserts additional complexities like latency — the time taken for a radio signal from Mars to travel is tens of minutes, compared to the near-instantaneous signals from the moon. And deep space communication — the distance to Mars is two orders of magnitude higher compared to the Earth-Moon distance.

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