Leadership in Space

Cheapest-Ever Mars Mission

FLI Newsweek India Space Research Organization

Indian Space Research Organization scientists and engineers cheer after India’s Mars orbiter successfully entered the red planet’s orbit, at their Spacecraft Control Center on September 24, 2014. Abhishek N. Chinnappa/Reuters

How India Achieved the Cheapest-Ever Interplanetary Mission to Mars

Late Wednesday night, India made history by becoming the first nation to successfully enter Mars’s orbit on its first attempt. Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman K Radhakrishnan claimed that this is “the cheapest interplanetary mission to ever be undertaken by the world.” The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) cost $74 million, a fraction of other Mars missions.

The MOM spacecraft is called the Mangalyaan, means “Mars craft” in Hindi. MOM launched into space nearly a year ago, on November 5, 2013, from a rocket port at Sriharikota, an island in the Bay of Bengal. Since then, it’s been flying high and fast toward Mars.

According to ISRO, India has shot 74 total satellites into space. MOM’s success places the nation well ahead of other Asian superpowers, such as Japan and China, who have attempted Mars missions but haven’t been able to reach the red planet. A 2003 Japanese mission petered out after it failed to reach Mars orbit, and a 2011 attempt by China and Russia’s Yinghuo-1 probe died when the Russian-built rocket wasn’t able to leave Earth’s orbit, notes a 2013 Associated Press report.

But China has warm regards for India after the successful mission: “It’s a pride of India, pride of Asia and is also a landmark progress in humankind’s exploration of outer space,” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In fact, China and India also pledged to collaborate in intergalactic research when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visited India last week.

On Thursday, MOM posted its first photo from Mars via ISRO’s Facebookpage showing the craft hovering over the planet’s surface. MOM will continue to send photos as it studies the planet’s topography and will examine the high concentration of methane gas on Mars, which some researchers speculate suggests the presence of life.

India is only one of a handful of nations—the United States and Russia among them—that have successfully reached Mars orbit. Of the 51 global missions to Mars since 1960, only 21 of them have persevered.

The interest in exploring Mars is feverish, but it is still a challenging feat to reach Mars orbit: two out of three missions to the red planet have failed. In part, this is because, space is full of treacherous elements, like solar flares and debris. If a spacecraft doesn’t slow down enough when reaching orbit, it can risk being sent adrift in outer space if it’s not seized by Mars’s gravitational pull. And if a craft does reach the planet’s orbit, landing is even more difficult; one NASA researcher described entering, descending and landing on Mars as “six minutes of terror.” A spacecraft can risk crashing on Mars’s craggy, crater-filled surface upon landing as well.

There’s also the question of cash, as Mars exploration efforts are pricey. No one has yet found a way to make a profit from intergalactic travel, a fact that makes investors from the private sector skeptical. Government budgets are, of course, limited as well.

This is why India’s economical approach to space exploration is so astounding; it proves that future intergalactic missions are feasible on small budgets. That’s partially attributed to the nation’s lower labor costs, and also to the spacecraft’s no-frills design and the nation’s lower labor costs; a 2013 NPR report found that the top Indian engineers earned less than $20,000 annually, compared to the median income of U.S. aerospace engineers, which comes out to a little under $105,000 a year.

Additionally, MOM’s primary goal was just reaching Mars, which explains the spacecraft’s lack of expensive accoutrements and simple model. “We kept it low-cost, high technology. That is the Indian way of working,” Sandip Bhattacharya, assistant director of B.M. Birla Planetarium in Jaipur, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

NASA’s own Mars mission, MAVEN, also reached the planet’s orbit earlier this week, on Sunday night. But the long-term U.S. venture cost a whopping $670 million as compared to the moderately priced MOM, and it boasts weightier equipment. On Thursday, MAVEN sent over its first photos from Mars, where it will remain for a year attempting to solve some of the planet’s mysteries.

By Paula Mejia for Newsweek
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