Will Asia pair up?

mars-indiaThough the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Mars faced criticism for doing away with the originally planned launch of the MOM on Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rocket with 500 kg payload and 12 instruments, its launch aboard the tried and tested Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) XL rocket proven in the moon mission Chandrayaan-I yet could create more than another landmark. Already, the very effort to Mars in the form of this small ultra low-cost mission with five instruments has invited global attention.  Nonetheless, the real challenges have not yet begun so far.

Unlike the Chandrayaan mission or other earth orbit satellites which reach their orbital slots in one to two weeks, the ISRO’s challenge here will be to operate the propulsion system after 300 days, overcoming the likely performance deterioration that the system undergoes over this long duration travelling through hostile radiations of the space. Not to ignore the thousand times distance of 400 million kilometers compared to the 4 lakh km in moon mission which will lead to a communication delay of 20 minutes one way itself. The ISRO claims to have the Mars Orbiter with high level of onboard autonomy, but a single critical glitch could cost the entire mission as happened in case of most Mars mission, including China’s and Japan’s.

In the case of China’s Mars mission Yinghuo-1, the spacecraft failed to leave Earth’s orbit and crashed back soon after its launch because Russia’s Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, also onboard, was unable to perform the burns required to depart the earth’s orbit. China certainly got the experience of designing a flight-ready spacecraft that could be helpful in designing larger independent Mars missions it plans in future, but the Yinghuo-1 mission never got the chance to open its solar panels either, much less do any real operation.

The only other Asian MOM was Japan’s Nozomi in 1998. Nozomi could not complete its mission to study Mars’s upper atmosphere and its interaction with solar wind and magnetic field, despite remaining for five years in space (July 1998 to December 2003). By far, Nozomi remains the farthest space mission by any Asian country having survived for long and sent volumes of interplanetary space data. Nozomi finally failed because of a series of mishaps and ultimately running out of fuel before it could reach Mars.

India-China space race?

mars-chinaThe nationalist sentiments in China was best expressed by Global Times when it resorted to India-bashing, saying that India sent a probe to Mars despite having millions of people below poverty line to gain an advantage over China. China’s National Space Science Center director Wu Ji says it will take China five to seven years before it could make it to the Mars to look beyond where the US and India leave.

Pang Zhihao, a researcher with the China Academy of Space Technology, was quoted by China Daily as saying that China is ready to conduct its own exploration of Mars in the near future. Pang said that the mission could be termed successful only at the end of the year. Other experts have said that if India is indeed able to reach Mars, there will be extra pressure on Chinese space scientists to push the Mars project.

Reactions from the US have centred around the short duration of 15 months in which the Mangalyan was readied and at a cost which happens to be just a fraction of what the NASA’s MOMs require. Other than the costs involved in ground stations and relay upgrades, the actual satellite has cost a mere $25 million (Rs. 153 crore). According to some estimates, NASA’s similar MAVEN Mars project could cost 10 times more and will take three times longer. Critics, however, say that no breakthrough scientific gains could be expected from this modest mission and is at best an attempt to demonstrate capability.

Talks of the Asian space race between India and China on the lines of the US and erstwhile USSR have dominated the US press equally. The Wall Street Journal called India’s Mangalyan a “technological leap” and the CNN wrote it to be “a symbolic coup” against China. Dr James Clay Moltz, professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School, told CNN: “I believe India’s leadership sees China’s recent accomplishments in space science as a threat to its status in Asia, and feels the need to respond.”

Space Brotherhood

mars-india1The ISRO or its votaries do not seem to be getting caught up amid these clubbings centered around national pride. They claim that a successful Mangalyan MOM would have benefits beyond pride in terms of attracting lucrative space business and critical talent willing to work on government salaries as it would have a well-publicised and critically acclaimed credibility to showcase. The answer for this quickly planned mission sounds equally convincing: to benefit from a particular planetary alienation that brought Mars closer to earth.


The possibility a successful Mangalyan mission holds has China also signaling joint efforts to ensure peace in outer space. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told that: “Outer space is shared by the entire mankind. Every country has the right to make peaceful exploration and use of outer space.” Hong also talked of international cooperation: “Meanwhile, the international community should cooperate to maintain the permanent peace and sustainable development of outer space.”

mars-india3Cooperation in space field with China, given the current state of strategic trust and its highly controversial Anti Satellite Test (ASAT) in 2007, could be extremely difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, this mission has the potential to bring India at the global space high table where India could benefit more from its existing space partnership with the US, Russia and EU, and China as well. China has made great strides in developing manned and unmanned space flight, lunar rover and space station technology and became only the third nation to put up a manned spacecraft in 2003. Mangalyan could give India a leg up in the area of interplanetary missions making it only the fourth country after the US, Europe and Russia to have successfully sent a spacecraft to Mars. Indeed, the advantage would be sustained only if the ISRO manages to stay ahead in other crucial space technologies.

China Daily quoted Chinese experts in an article on November 6, which said that “China and India may work together to explore space instead of being engaged in what was called ‘aerospace competition’.” Ye Hailin, an expert on South Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it to be India’s “great achievement.” Ye said: “Like the Chinese, Indian people have their space dreams as well…The Mars orbiter, if successful, will increase the human race’s store of knowledge and change our life.”


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