It was a historic day for India today. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully entered Martian orbit this morning, becoming the first country’s Mars mission to ever do so.
Launched on 5th November last year, India’s MOM wasn’t the first Asian attempt at getting an unmanned robotic mission into the orbit of Mars – Japan was the first from the continent to attempt a launch in 1998, and China’s Yinghuo-1 failed in the year 2011, as did Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission.
Despite India’s late foray into the realm, it achieved the distinction of becoming the first ever country to succeed in making a spacecraft orbit Mars in the very first attempt. At 7:59 AM on 24th September, 2014, the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), K. Radhakrishnan, confirmed that India’s Mars mission was successful.
Mangalyaan is aimed at understanding Mars’ surface composition and mineral break-down, with a focus on scanning the Martian atmosphere for methane, all the while looking to answer the proverbial search for extraterrestrial life.
Here are 5 incredible things about the way we made history today
1. It is the most frugal inter-planetary mission the world has ever undertaken
The turnaround satellite mission has attracted the attention of global media for its high-end technology despite posing a very low cost to the country: it was built by ISRO at a total cost of approximately $74 million, which is a tenth of what it cost NASA to make Maven, USA’s mission that entered Mars’ orbit on 21st September 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has joked, “The [making of the] Hollywood movie Gravity cost more than our Mars mission,” – Gravity cost roughly $100 million to produce.
2. Mangalyaan actually saves fuel by travelling a greater distance
The mission cuts costs by using its resources in the most efficient manner possible. ISRO designed the spacecraft to travel 690 million kilometres between Mars and Earth in a curved manner, even though the straight-line distance is only 55 million kilometers. Though this may seem counterintuitive, it has actually been critical to minimizing Mangalyaan’s fuel usage, because by using a smaller rocket to put its spacecraft into Earth orbit first, it gained enough momentum to slingshot toward Mars.
Mangalyaan was developed by recycling an existing spacecraft body design. In a wonderful statement for sustainability, India’s Mars orbiter seeks to reduce wastage, as it was the 25th flight of its launch vehicle PSLV-XL.
3. It has state-of-the-art equipment
Despite its low production costs, the orbiter is choc full of high-end technologies; among other things, it has a Mars Colour Camera (MCC), which will provide images of Martian surfaces and be used to monitor the weather, and a Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP) will measure the amount of hydrogen and deuterium in the Martian upper atmosphere, to understand how water was lost from the planet. A Thermal Infrared Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS) along with a Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) will sense geological activity and check for the presence of methane, and a Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA) will analyze the Martian upper atmosphere.
4. The odds were stacked against us
Historically, there have been 51 global missions to Mars since the year 1960, of which 58% failed. While some of these unsuccessful attempts were inexplicable in nature, such as NASA’s Mars Observer in 1992; some, like Japan’s 1998 mission ran out of fuel, and others were set back by flawed software. None of any country’s maiden attempts has managed to orbit Mars, which highlights the scientific advancement marked by India’s success.
The worldwide scientific community has gone abuzz with praise for ISRO and its amazing achievement. Modi tweeted about it, and lauded the ISRO scientists who made it possible: “History has been created today. We have achieved the near impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists and all my fellow Indians on this historic achievement.”
Surprisingly, the strongest critic of the mars mission was none other than the former head of Isro, G Madhavan Nair. “It would be a national waste,” he had told Science magazine. Manmohan Singh in his independence day speech in 2012 termed it ”a half-baked, half-cooked mission being attempted in undue haste with misplaced objectives.”
5. It is an achievement for Indian science
This is a rare moment when a scientific achievement is celebrated so much in the country, above all the Bollywood and cricket buzz we usually get to hear. Science is absolutely underfunded in India and this is a rare moment of absolute glory for Indian scientists and hopefully incentive which is more than just a pat on the back, for the next generation to want to take up and pursue science.
The achievement marks an indelible moment in Indian scientific history, as Modi notes that humanity would not have progressed ‘if we had not taken such leaps into the unknown, and space is the biggest unknown out there.’
It is in a tone of auspicious resonance with what Carl Sagan once said:
In more than one respect, the exploring of the Solar System and homesteading other worlds constitutes the beginning, much more than the end, of history.
Here’s what Twitter had to say about the successful mission:
— Doordarshan News (@DDNewsLive) September 24, 2014
— Follow NaMo (@FollowNaMonews) September 24, 2014
Howdy @MarsCuriosity ? Keep in touch. I’ll be around.
— ISRO’s Mars Orbiter (@MarsOrbiter) September 24, 2014
And finally, this is what we need – more people taking up science and joining organisations like the ISRO: