We Earthlings have long been intrigued by the Red planet. Albeit smaller than the Earth, the fourth planet from the Sun shares a lot of common features with our home world: Mars has seasons, polar ice caps, familiar landform features, and signs that water once flowed over its surface.
Mars was always focus of interest of planetary scientists and astronomers. The race for exploring Mars began in 1960 with a failed attempt by Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). After many failures of Soviet Union and the USA, the first success came with the Mariner 4 spacecraft which flew by Mars in 1965 taking 21 images.
Until now, only three space agencies have been able to reach Mars (Roscosmos, NASA and ESA). After 54 years since the first attempts, the Indian Space Research Agency (ISRO) has joined the club of nations who have reached the red plant. This is great technological feat by ISRO, and means that India have became the first nation to reach Mars orbit in its very first attempt and the first Asian nation to do so. ISRO launched its first inter-planetary mission to the planet with an orbiter craft designed to orbit Mars in an elliptical orbit.
The Indian spacecraft is known as Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) also called Mangalyaan (“Mars craft” in Hindi). It was launched on November 5, 2013 and reached and began orbiting Mars on September 24, 2014. It carries five instruments (or payloads) that will help advance knowledge of Mars surface features, morphology, mineralogy and Martian atmosphere.
Following the success of Chandryaan 1 – lunar probe, Indian scientists were anticipating a similarly successful outcome from the Mars Orbiter Mission. With ISRO successfully inserting MOM in Mars orbit in its first attempt, Indian scientists are rightly excited and proud of their great feat.
1.25 billion People are proud of what ISRO did with a small budget of $74 million, which equates to a costs of $0.064 per person in India. It is the cheapest inter-planetary mission ever to be undertaken since Martian exploration began. The probe travelled a distance of 780,000,000 kilometres to reach Mars and which costs $0.11 per Kilometre. As a young researcher in planetary science, MOM means a lot to me. It has opened a gate for young Indian minds that are willing to work on Mars. Now, they can work on Martian data from autochthonous technology. Now, I can go back to India after finishing my PhD and continue to work on Mars data.
Billion Indian hopes
Critics say India has too much poverty for such an endeavour. But space exploration should not be the preserve of the rich west. ISRO is a late entrant to the space race, and the success of Mangalyaan makes the country an Asian leader in space exploration, if not yet a global one. The mission has been received with delight on India’s social media and across its political spectrum, where “national pride” is the watchword.
India, along with China and Japan, represent the forefront of what many pundits are calling the Asian Space Race. The addition of these Asian nations brings an exciting new energy to the Space Race at a time when many in Western countries have developed an almost blasé attitude toward their own space programmes. As we move forward into the 21st century, it will be very interesting to see the products of this new competition in Asia and what that holds for future cooperation among all the space-faring nations of the world. Yet India is fortunate in having a long and diverse history of campaigning science movements that have sought to draw both on indigenous knowledge traditions and direct modern scientific research towards progress in health, literacy, environment, nutrition and sanitation. The best way for India to commemorate the success of Mangalyaan would be to reopen a national debate about how science and technology can best be harnessed in the widest interests of its people.
After India’s successful Mars mission, there was a supposition among many Western as well as Indian media and people, that space activity should be left to the wealthy, developed countries and that it can have no worth to the developing nations. The argument was that money could be rather spent on healthcare and improved sanitation. But what was disregarded is that investment in science and technology builds competence and aptitude and helps develop the people who further profit the financial system and the society.
The developed nations already know that space activity is also a wealth producer, and have radically increased their spending on space activities in recent years. India wants to be a part of this too, and through Mangalyaan and its other space missions, the nation is putting itself into a strong position in international markets for space products and services.
Planetary Science in India
Planetary science is a not common field of study in India. Almost no University in India offers any course in the subject. There are only a few scientists in research institutes like the National Geophysical Research Institute, the Physical Research Laboratory and the Indian Space Research Organization work in this field. I hope with the success of Chandrayaan 1 and Mangalyaan (MOM), many young Indian students will be encourage to take up this emerging field of science. Some Universities in India are planning to introduce courses in planetary science and planetary geology. The active participation of the media will increase awareness around the subject, especially for school students. Many Indians working in this field abroad will consider returning to their nation to aid in space exploration.
Hands down, ISRO has made India proud and it is hoped that it will carry on to create more opportunities in science and technology for coming generations.
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Authored by Ankit Verma, Ph.D student, Earth and Planetary Surface Processes Research Group, Geography, TCD.