India’s Mars Dream: An Asian Space Race?

A decade ago when Robert Kagan famously wrote that the Europeans are from Venus and Americans from Mars in the post 9/11 New World Order, the world’s fastest growing economy on the other side of the hemisphere, China, made another grand claim with a flourish: China will beat the US with a manned mission to Mars.

A decade since, China might be left behind by their southern neighbour if the confidence of some in India are to be believed over India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mangalyaan’s scheduled launch on October 28 from Sriharikota. Though critics have questioned the need of rushing to reach Mars when India is yet to master its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), a technologically difficult mission just five years after the launch of its successful lunar probe Chandrayaan-I in 2008 is already being interpreted as a space race between India and China.

Mars has let few space intrusions from the man’s world reach its orbit successfully, let alone land on its surface or set up a station for long duration. Of the nearly four dozen attempts, more than half have ended in failure. The success of another half of the Mars missions remains measurable in a few thousand images of which the overwhelming majority until the 1970s would go to US’ Mariner 9.  The next breakthrough came with the first successful landing of the Viking 1 Orbiter mission of the US in 1975.

The Viking 2 Orbiter in the same year returned 16,000 images, extensive atmospheric data and soil experiments from Mars. However, after that, there were a series of continuous failed missions for more than two decades until Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Pathfinder, both belonging to the US, became successful in 1996. For another five years, only failures came the way of even the world’s biggest and most extensively funded space agencies – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the US and Nozomi of Japan. Mars Odyssey of NASA in 2001 sent high-resolution images of Mars. Since then, there has been consistency in terms of successful missions with the latest being NASA’s Curiosity. Nonetheless, the course of successes and failures to Mars missions clearly underline the high risks attached to the ambitious project.

China Ups Stakes

mars-chinaChina’s Yinghuo-1 Mars mission in 2011 remained short of success as it failed to perform its scheduled burn to begin its trajectory to Mars. This despite the expertise that China has attained in terms of being only the third country to have managed to independently send a human being into space after Russia and the US. Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang performed a spacewalk in 2008, staying outside Shenzhou-7 capsule for 15 minutes. His adventurous exercise was seen as key to China’s ambition to build a future orbiting station.

Indeed, these failures have not weakened China’s endeavour to map the outer space. The world’s second largest economy plans a space station before the coming decade gets over in 2023. The journey towards China owning a space station is expected to begin with the launch of Tiangong-2 space laboratory in around two years.

It already has major strides to its credit in the journey to space. In 2003, China became only the third country to independently launch a human into space and in June 2012, it successfully carried out manual space docking for the very first time. These technological feats put China at the forefront of the space race with both technological and financial clout to sustain the momentum at a time when NASA is facing budget cuts. The fears of budgetary constraints for the near future have NASA and the US President Obama arguing about China as a potential partner for any eventual costly human mission to Mars.

mars-2Future is Now

While this means an opportunity for China, both technology and geopolitics around space require India not to be left behind in the space race. For India, K. Radhakrishnan, the chief of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO),  asserts that the country’s first Martian odyssey is not for pride alone but for undertaking meaningful research of a planet that could be “possibly a future habitat…20 years or 30 years from now.”

One of ISRO’s MOM’s primary objectives is to detect the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, a gas considered a strong indicator of life on Earth. Radhakrishnan’s assurance, however, sounds a bit exaggerated, especially in the context of recent revelations by NASA’s ongoing Mars rover Curiosity. Curiosity’s findings that there is “no trace of methane, a potential sign of primitive life, on the Martian surface”  raise questions about the entire MOM project.  Indeed, as the research community would argue, such findings about a distant planet cannot be considered conclusive. In any case, this mission will make India only the sixth country to launch a mission to Mars after the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and China.

Incidentally, this November will mark 50th  anniversary of India sending a rocket into space for the very first time. This October end, a successful Mangalyan Mars mission for the ISRO will mean being more than “In The Service Of Human Kind,” its motto. It’s not clear yet how giant a leap it would be as would ultimately depend on the ISRO’s ability to sustain the momentum and avoid the repeat of any future Antrix-Devas. It still marks the beginning of a new global space pecking order where India and China are going to be starring players.



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