Saturday, September 27, 2014

India's mission to Mars, the Mangalyaan, this week made history as Asia's first machine to reach the red planet.

The achievement also makes India the first country to succeed at its first try - Russia, the United States and China all failed in their maiden attempts - matching the success of the multi-national European Space Agency.

Despite some nationalistic chest-thumping, Mangalyaan - officially known as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) - is not just one nation's unique triumph. It could be a win for all humanity.

This is because Mangalyaan reaching Mars' orbit after a 300-day marathon on September 24 likely marks the beginning of an end to boyish competition between space faring nations. The old days of tense US-Soviet space races, such as to the moon, now seem as outdated as Roman chariot races in gladiatorial arenas.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) took just 15 months to build the 1,300-kilogram rocket that journeyed 670 million kilometers from Earth to Mars. The rocket was launched from a rocket port at Sriharikota, in the Bay of Bengal on November 5 last year.

ISRO has learned from the mistakes of other failed missions to Mars, including a Chinese mission to Mars, Yinghuo-1, which failed in 2011.

Among the world's 51 attempts to reach Mars, the US, Russia and the European Space Agency have succeeded 21 times, but none were likely as cost-effective as Mangalyaan.

Mangalyaan's actual work on Mars has limited scope, but in the feat of its arrival the real work is already done. The mission is a small stone attached to a string that could pull much larger, more sophisticated spacecraft at much cheaper cost to Mars, and a significant stepping stone towards human beings living on another planet.

It is not, as some media outlets promptly gloated, an opportunity for India to score political points over neighboring China, which is yet to reach Mars. After all, Chinese and Indian space scientists agreed this week to work together on a roadmap for a series of missions to be implemented together.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to India deepened the Indian-Chinese space partnership. On September 18, Zhang Jianhua of the China National Space Administration and ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan signed an agreement to cooperate in peaceful use of space, to research and develop scientific experiment satellites, remote sensing and communications satellites. It is no longer China versus India in space.

The state-run Chinese media applauded India's Mars mission last November (see India launches Asia's first mission to Mars, Asia Times Online, November 8, 2013).

China Daily had called it a "great achievement", saying: "The Mars orbiter will increase the human race's store of knowledge and change our life." On September 24, China termed Mangalyaan reaching Mars a "landmark success".

ISRO is also working with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The US Mars Curiosity Rover Twitter account was the first to welcome Mangalyaan to Mars with a "namaste", the Indian form of greeting. "Howdy", responded Mangalyaan, in the best traditions of a cowboy town in Texas.

Not everyone is in touch with emerging realities in space. When Mangalyaan took off on November 5, 2013, some asked why a poverty-stricken country was spending so much on an interplanetary space project.

"India's Mars 'fantasy' defies earthly woes", proclaimed Britain's Financial Times. It quoted economist Jean Dreze describing the Mars project as "the Indian elite's delusional quest for superpower status". Skeptics included former ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair, who declared the Mars project a waste of funds that was doomed to failure.

Yet Mangalyaan has succeeded and on a shoe-string space budget of US$74 million. This represents an outlay of seven rupees (US$0.11) per kilometer, or a per capita cost of four rupees per person in India - half the price of a glass of roadside tea in Mumbai.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pointed out how the Mangalyaan mission cost less than making a Hollywood sci-fi movie. The $74 million is one-tenth of the cost of the MAVEN explorer from NASA that reached Mars on September 21 to study its upper atmosphere. The more sophisticated Curiosity Rover from NASA, on Martian duty since 2012, cost $2.5 billion.

With the earlier success of the moon traveler Chandrayaan-I, the ISRO can stake a claim to being the world's most innovate space agency, as a leader in low-cost space technology. Space exploration could be boosted if NASA's know-how merges with the cost-effective solutions of the ISRO. It is less about re-inventing wheels, and more about finding efficient ways to fast forward humanity's hopes in other planets.

Multi-national collaboration has been a key part of Asia's first successful mission to Mars. Engineers at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in Australia were the first to receive signals from Mars to confirm Mangalyaan had successfully reached the fourth planet from the Sun.

ISRO officials have acknowledged global input in Mangalyaan's achievement. "This [success] has come after intense study of others' failures and the reasons for failure, and building our satellite accordingly," M Pitchaimani, deputy director of the control center at the ISRO, told the Washington Post. "We also had gained from their accumulated knowledge about the gravity field of the planet, and we built robust instruments based on that data."

"Accumulated knowledge" has been key - directly and indirectly. For instance, the US MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) in Mars and Mangalyaan are not rivals, but space ambassadors from the world's two largest democracies.

Mangalyaan, searching for methane in Mars, has logistics support from NASA. But if NASA had also shared its "accumulated knowledge" of Martian methane - a sign of life on Mars - then Mangalyaan could well have spent its life gathering other data that NASA does not yet have.

Greater sharing of space knowledge could happen progressively. The ISRO has prominently declared the need for more global sharing of resources to explore space. "India has always recognized that space has dimensions beyond national considerations, which can only be addressed along with international partners," the ISRO website says. [1] "Over the years, as ISRO has matured in experience and technological capabilities, the scope for cooperation has become multi-faceted."

As a sign of this unprecedented global space cooperation, India's ISRO has signed space technology agreements with 36 countries. It includes China, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea, Mauritius, Indonesia and Mongolia. ISRO had termed Chandrayaan-1 "an exemplary example of international cooperation with its international payloads". Mangalyaan's success this week could more easily pave the way to the next big interplanetary plan: finding ways for humans to live on Mars by the year 2030.

"A permanent base on Mars would have a number of advantages beyond being a bonanza for planetary science and geology," wrote physicist Paul Davies in 2009. [2] "If, as some evidence suggests, exotic micro-organisms have arisen independently of terrestrial life, studying them could revolutionize biology, medicine and biotechnology."

Mangalyaan's success pushes the idea of humans spending a summer vacation in Mars closer to being more a question of "when", not "if". Orville and Wilbur Wright, 110 years ago, were deemed crackpots when they engineered a flying machine called an "aero plane". Yesterday's "impossibility" is today's everyday reality.

Raja Murthy, Mumbai

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