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MOM : An Achievement Or A Luxury In The Name Of Space Exploration?

November 26, 2013

Present status of the MoM:

With its fifth orbit lifting operation finally complete successfully, the Mangalyaan is orbiting at an apogee of approximately 1.93 lakh kilometers. This apogee means that the satellite is ready to leave the orbit of the earth and embark on its journey of 400 million miles to Mars. The final departure from the earth’s orbit will involve a phase called the Trans – Martian Injection (the final rocket boost), scheduled for December 1st, 2013. The scientists of ISRO have reaffirmed that the satellite is in a perfect condition to conclude the Trans – Martian Injection operation and complete its 300 days space travel, to its final destination, the Red Planet.

Meanwhile, the spacecraft is transmitting images of the earth, depicting the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa. One such photograph has been officially released by ISRO, which vividly captures even the Severe Cyclonic Storm Helen that had recently hit the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh. As confirmed by a statement on behalf of ISRO, “We are checking the equipment on board the spacecraft. This picture is from the Mars Color Camera, fitted on the Mars Orbiter spacecraft, taken on Tuesday at 1:50 AM from over 67,975 kilometers altitude, with a resolution of 3.53 kilometers per pixel”. The Mars Color Camera will be transmitting tri – color images of the atmosphere and topography of the Mars, once the spacecraft embarks in an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet by September 2014. As confirmed by a senior ISRO official, in a statement to the media, “The images and information will be useful to monitor the Martian weather. The camera will be used to monitor two of its satellites, Phobos and Deimos”.

MoM – some ugly truths:

Though it has been reiterated that the MoM is beyond any criticism, and that the success or the failure of the said Mars Mission is immaterial, the Mission itself will serve to inflame the ardor of patriotism and motivate the youth community of our country. The analysts assess that, with the successful completion of the Mars Mission, India will have a stake of USD 304 billion in the global space market, and will be on the same page as that of USA, Russia, Japan, China and Europe, as well as being a leading authority in space explorations, in the global perspective. Only Europe, Russia and USA had been successful so far, in putting a satellite orbiting the Mars, or actually touching the surface of the Red Planet and exploring it to some extent. As mentioned before, Mars Missions have a low success rate, (about one successful attempts out of three). Especially, with the failure of the Chinese and the Japanese Mars Missions, India will definitely have a credit up its sleeve, if it can pull off the MoM successfully, with the low cost technologies used. Mars Mission in fact has another side; it is India, embarking in a military space technology rat race with China.

It’s a fact that, the media hype surrounding the MoM had been quite exaggerating. The declaration of the media, that the mission was an undoubted success, came even before the PSLV had broken through the gravitational field of the earth. The media hypes also proved to be gross misinformation, as evident from the technical hurdles encountered by ISRO during the orbit lifting operations. The liquid fuelled rocket propelled engine had stalled after the three consecutive orbit lifting operations, as a result of which the spacecraft failed to attain the apogee of 100,000 kilometers. Though ISRO claimed that the hurdle was overcome through a supplementary orbital lift, ISRO had not anticipated it, and it is yet to acquire the necessary expertise, in such complex space shuttle maneuvers.  It needs to be mentioned here that, ISRO had proved its inefficiency in the said complex operations in the past, in the partially successful Chandrayaan project of 2008- 2009. The real challenge, of course, is making the spacecraft attain the apogee of 200, 000 kilometers – the final departure from the earth’s orbit, which will involve a phase called the Trans – Martian Injection (the final rocket boost) scheduled for December 1st, 2013, embarking Mangalyaan in an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet by September, 2014.

Another point to be noted is the short time, in which the entire project of the MOM was organized – just a period of 15 months. NASA and the European Space Agency took 3 to 4 years, to develop their Mars project, that too with components tested beyond doubt, by time and previous space explorations. While the MoM has been completed within a budget of USD 73 million, the US Curiosity had a budget of USD 2.5 billion. So, it cannot be guaranteed that the Mangalyaan will not face any further technical glitches.

Even if the MoM is completed successfully, the spacecraft will be launched in an orbit around the Mars with dimensions 366 kilometers X 80,000 kilometers, a considerable distance from the actual planet, to make any practical observations of the planet feasible. Consequently, the Mangalyaan cannot be expected to record an iota of the scientific data that the US Mars Global Surveyor and the European Mars Express had already logged on the Red Planet. In short, the MoM cannot be expected to beam back any scientific information that is not already recorded, or data that might prove indispensable in future space explorations.

The 1350 kilo Mangalyaan carries a payload of only 13 kilos, in contrast to the Mar’s Expresses’ payload of 116 kilos.  The insufficiency of the instruments on the Mangalyaan, heavily delimits the spacecraft’s capacity to furnish any new information. The Mangalyaan’s limitations arise directly from the ISRO’s lack of initiative and repeated failures in designing a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), despite continued research on the said vehicle for the past 15 years. While test runs of the GSLV designed by ISRO met with consistent failures, the last attempt was abandoned in August. A GSLV is capable of launching a much heavier satellite (2000 kilos plus). Such a heavier satellite can evidently be furnished with a greater number of necessary equipments (higher payload), which in turn significantly enhances the observational capacities of the satellite. Instead of concentrating on the developments of the GSLV, ISRO had hastily assembled a PSLV (essentially meant for launching low altitude earth orbiting satellites), to embark the Mangalyaan on its Mars Mission. This has seriously compromised the speed, and the scientific data recording capacities of the spacecraft.

And lastly, as claimed by ISRO, the purpose of the MoM is to detect and identify the source of methane on the surface of the Red Planet, which seems to be the prime objective of the mission. However, despite the 600 million readings taken by the European Mars Global Surveyor, of the Martian topography and the US Curiosity, which actually touched and traversed the surface of the Mars, no source of methane was detected on the Red Planet. It is therefore inconceivable that the Mangalyaan, with its severely limited observations, and being located at such a huge distance from the actual planet, will be able to find any trace of methane, let alone furnish any new information pertaining to the Martian landscape and atmospheric conditions. This implies that the primary cause of the mission will be defeated, in the long run!


Considering the above mentioned points, it is easily predictable that the MoM is basically a failure, in adding to any scientific facts about Mars that has remained unknown till date. The only scientific achievements, that India may be accredited to, through the MOM, are some experience in communication with satellites, involved in deep space probe, which too, would not have been possible without the active participation of the NASA, providing the ground level support for the MoM, through its Deep Space Network (DSN) facilities. Ex- ISRO Chairman, G Madhavan Nair, had been vitriolic in his criticism about the MoM, terming the Mission as ‘useless’, ‘showpiece event’ and ‘no new technologies involved’, designed to draw a fig – leaf over ISRO’s failures in designing a functional GSLV. He is of the opinion that ISRO should undertake ‘practical missions’ rather than ‘spending money on nothing.’ The MoM can at best be described as a space extravaganza, implemented at the cost of Rs 460 crores, with no discernable scientific quotient, which, in a country beleaguered with poverty and illiteracy, is bound to attract criticism!

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