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Mars Orbiter Mission: A Critical Look

Dr. R. Ramchandran, of the The Hindu Group tells Newsclick that Mars Orbiter Mission is primarily a technology demonstrator for showcasing India's ability for a complex inter-planetary missions. The limitation of the mission was it was launched by PSLV. The PSLV launchers were originally intended for placing lighter payloads into lower earth orbits. If the launch had been done by GSLV, it would have had a higher payload, would have boosted India's space programme and enabled it to compete in the global launch market. However, the Mars Orbiter Mission is still a significant achievement and shows the capability of Indian scientists to execute such a complex project in a record time. Unfortunately, the PM and the media engaged in a degree of triumphalism that was not warranted for what ISRO itself regards as a modest mission.

Rough Transcript:

Prabir Purkayastha (PP): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Today we have with us Dr. R. Ramachandran of the Hindu group to discuss the Mars Orbiter Mission and what is going to happen now that the Orbiter is in orbit. Dr. Ramachandran is also known as Bajji, so I'll call him Bajji. Bajji, good to have you with us.

Dr. R. Ramachandran (RR): Thank you.


PP: Looking at the Mars Mission, it has, at least up to this stage, worked successfully, it has been a flawless performance, what next is going to happen, we are going to get instruments sending information data back to us, what are the likely outcomes of such data?

RR: Even from the conceptualization stage, it was always intended to be a technology demonstration, not so much of a science mission. So accordingly, with the limited size of the space craft and the limited capability of a launch vehicle, it was a modest satellite event in terms of the amount of payload it can carry and the instruments are therefore of limited capabilities. And we had only put some 5 instruments on board amounting about 15 kilograms together. Mission of NASA which is going around which is MAVEN and having a collaborative effort in sharing data and seeing what best analysis can be done with the data that we have gathered. So, in terms of science, I do not see that there'll be great data emerging out if it or great results emerging out of this. Yes, it could be for fortuitously, prove to be successful in that front as well, if we are able to detect some methane, one of the instruments that it carries is the methane censor and none of the missions, so far, has specifically looked for methane because all integrations in the past have been that there's probably no methane on Mars. Its only a probability that which could indicate the possible existence of life in the past. Right now, again we have a fortuitous event happening on October 19th, that is the passage of Comet Siding Spring which will come as close as about 1.5 lac kilometers to Mars and there are 2 satellites orbiting this planet. So, it gives a good opportunity to look at the comet and get some new data, which was not possible earlier at such close quarters to observe a comet and that may provide some interesting results. These are the kind of things, I think, that will happen in the near future.


PP: So what you are saying is the Methane instrument is the one which may show some interesting results and also what we capture of the comet. Now, the other issue that you raised is that the payload was very low because of the nature of the launch vehicle, the PSLV. So, does it mean that the GSLV is now something that should be important in the India's next part of the programme?

RR: GSLV is important from basic perspective of the India's Space Programme itself, that to be able to launch better communication satellites for our own purposes rather than looking at inter planetary missions of this kind. So we'll be able to launch heavier size satellites, communication satellites, better remote sensing satellites etc. So that will be the primary objective of the GSLV itself, yes, in the process having built the GSLV and if it is successful it can get into inter planetary missions, which can carry better payloads and more massive satellites.


PP: So what's the difference between the PSLV and the GSLV in these terms.

RR: Well, PSLV was originally intended to launch only satellites into lower earth orbit basically looking at remote sensing satellites which is set about 300-700 kms,


PP: Also weather...

RR: Also weather. Not weather so much, but now of course you can do both, even the better quality of instruments that we can put on board even on remote sensing satellites but weather requires a kind of constant observation over your country. So it's always better to use Geo-stationary satellites for that, whereas, remote sensing satellites constantly go around the poles so you don't have a constant look at a given region, you have to wait for it to come back over that region to see. Weather satellites have mostly been based on INSAT satellite system. GSLV is primarily required for launching heavier satellites for our own communication purposes.


PP: And also because of, you can launch them in geo stationary orbits which mean they stay over one place continuously because they are in sync with the earth's rotation.

RR: That's right. That is the primary objective of being able to build a GSLV. So far we have been using Russian engines and engine developed based on the Russian design which was Mark 1 and Mark 2 respectively. Now, we are going to make completely indigenously designed cryogenic engine which is going to be mark 3 and then by the end of the year we'll have a test of this mark 3 cryogenic engine and a dummy launch, it will be passive in the sense that the cryogenic engine will not really, sort of, operate but all the avionics will be put in there to see how it is going to function and next year, perhaps, we'll actually be able to launch a satellite with GSLV Mark 3.


PP: One of the things, of course, is that India has been under sanction, this has been a major issue and the fact itself lands it has been the mantra in that sense of ISRO and today we see that it really has a good wide base of technologies and the only gap has been in that sense, the triogenic engine. Leaving that out, there had been a lot of hype the Indian media has had, on how this was a great achievement, of course it is a great and significant achievement and some how it beaten everybody to some mythical race. What do you think of this jingoism of the media that we've seen over the Mars mission?

RR: This is the problem with the Indian media in general, now you see, having achieved something like this and rightly so, ISRO itself have projected it to be a technology demonstrator. They were not trying to race with anybody or something like that, I mean, if the Chinese launch had failed, your 2nd mission to Mars can also fail. It doesn't mean that every time you are going to launch a mission to Mars is going to be successful. So if China has failed and so you've succeeded doesn't mean anything at all to me.


PP: Or the fact, ours is the first successful mission in the history of Mars missions, this kind of hype again?

RR: You've also stood on other's shoulders let's remember this. That there have been missions earlier which have failed and many of them succeeded and we've learned from their experiences, for example, the crucial technology inputs that have gone into building this Mars Orbiter of ISRO, would have learn from the failures of the earlier missions, so, we've to look at it from that perspective rather than saying that this mission we've done the first time and nobody has done it earlier so we are the first in Asia and so on and so forth. I think that apart, it is true that it is a significant achievement in terms of technology demonstration that we're able to build reliable systems which are enduring for long durations, which can sustain the harsh environments of space over 300 days and so on and so forth so, it gives a confidence and a boost for future such missions we want to undertake and also having succeeded in a mission to moon, we would have already been confident that such a mission should be possible, it's not going to be very difficult and once you are able to achieve that trajectory towards Mars, rest is all automated. So it would've gone there anyway.


PP: Even automation is technology, but that apart, so basically, yes, a significant achievement but this triumphalism is a little misplaced..?

RR: Correct, for example, constantly you keep seeing in the media that ours has cost only 450 crores and MAVEN has cost one order of magnitude more and so on, that comparison is completely meaningless to me. Because firstly, ours is a very modest mission and secondly, it's a government enterprise completely. To make this kind of comparison that it is one order of magnitude less and so on and so forth because we have a lot of hidden costs even in this mission and that doesn't reflect in this 450 crores because we are using government facilities, whereas NASA has to depend entirely on Lockheed Martin which would've put in all that costs into costing this mission for them. So...that comparison also...


PP: But nevertheless it could be a more frugal innovation..?

RR: It is like all our efforts in other sectors as well, this would be frugal compared to any effort in the west.


PP: Modi gave a speech after the successful parking in the orbit of the Mangalyaan, no mention of the scientists who'd worked in the past like Bhabha, like Sarabhai, no mention of Nehru or the past government even if this past government which the Manmohan Singh's government which actually had planned this mission. Do you think it was a little misplaced again?

RR: It was certainly misplaced to an extent, not to give credit to the scientists who were actually involved.


PP: Yes, he didn't ask Radhakrishnan also to speak, that's the other part of it, who was the chief of this...

RR: The more interesting thing is, normally after such a mission, there'll be a press conference. This time there was no press conference. I'm told that it was Mr. Modi who wanted to make the final statement on the mission. So, after his speech there was no press conference, this is very interesting. So now, at least being a man from Gujarat and being so focused on Gujarat, even to a bilateral agreements and so on, he should have mentioned Sarabhai who hails from their state and the space programme began from Ahmedabad. Whether it turned oversight or he was not well informed by his advisors or he deliberately did so. But not to give credit to scientists who could actually put together such a mission in such a short time of 18 months, that's all, because it was sanctioned only in July 2012, let's remember that, so, within 15 months they could actually get the spacecraft ready and flying. So, they deserve to be credited much more than what was done by Modi.


PP: So, significant omission if you will and a little bit of win glorious statement by the leader and he spoke for 26 minutes. So, he had adequate time, as somebody said, "the rocket engine fired for 24 minutes, Modi fired for longer". So what about the questions like life on Mars, that our mission is going to find traces of life on Mars and so on. Do you think, again, these are completely innocent innocence of science?

RR: Yes, if you do detect methane in the atmosphere, it is only an indicator that perhaps during the history of Mars, there may have been life form of some kind, yes, but u need to collaborate with other thing because methane could be produced by other chemical processes as well.


PP: Prabir Purkayastha- Geological phenomenon..

RR: So,if it is an indicator, you'll go about finding other evidences to say that there was, indeed, life at some point of time. But that said, let us not carry it too much that we can actually sustain life on distinct planets of this kind, for humans to go and settle or something like that, that's a kind of a futuristic, science fiction kind of a stuff.


PP: Man missions, human person missions, whatever you have to call it, its not something which seems to be very attractive, because what is it that we can do with human being, we can't do with what we did it with today.

RR: Correct, that is true, at best if you want to look at man missions, we should look at what has been attempted so far, in all the man missions like the international space stations and so on, where you actually try to do what best can be done in terms of growing better materials, better crystals and how environment shapes the growth of plants, things like that which we can replicate on earth to do better things on the ground rather than saying that I'll go and settle there and mine helium or whatever it is, so, that kind of a thing.


PP: Wrapping this up, significant achievement in terms of technology demonstration, science is limited because of the nature of the payload and hopefully ISRO will now have a better base to look at what it can do in the future, including the GSLV programme.

RR: Now, look at the positive aspects of this mission, now ISRO's precision in the world space industry has certainly greatly, vastly improved due to the success of this mission.


PP: So good marketing exercise? I'm just joking but it does have that impact?

RR: It can't be termed as marketing exercise. It does have that impact but, to translate it, because a lot of things, let me dwell on it a little bit. Unfortunately, despite all the previous missions of ISRO, we've not really expanded the technology base based on the spin offs. There are limited industries contributing to ISRO's missions but this has to expand further, if we need to capture the world market in space technology, in terms of launchers, in terms of building satellites, that would happen only if you have a very high turn-over of these things. You should be able to build as many as say 10 launchers in a year, or may be 20 satellites in a year, but that requires a larger industrial base and larger manufacturing capability and that unfortunately has not grown as well as ISRO itself has grown. So now, everything seems to be concentrated and focussed within the ISRO system, rather than spun out into the general industrial base of the country.


PP: So we need to spread more, the base has to widen, if we want a viable space programme not just a...

RR: For example, we have not even captured the market of countries around us. Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan every country is looking for getting into space in the cheapest possible way and India could have easily contributed to this greatly. But now look at the way China has been operant. China has stepped in everywhere, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, they are all there. So we missed this opportunity for long because of not being able to create adequate manufacturing capacity in the country.


PP: Thank you very much Bajji, good to have you with us, hope to have you more for such programmes.

RR: Thank you so much.

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