India’s false prestige in space

India’s false prestige in space
Militant-nationalist euphoria is invariably conjured up whenever India conducts a seemingly sophisticated scientific experiment or makes lethal bombs, missiles or submarines. India’s entry into a supposedly ‘select’ or ‘exclusive’ high-technology ‘club’ is uncritically celebrated, although the club’s members are willing to rain mass death upon innocent civilians – as are all nuclear weapons-states – or seek a fig leaf of legitimacy to cover up heinous crimes against their own citizens.

The hype over the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission Mangalyaan carries this illogic to an extreme. We are told the mission isn’t open to criticism. Whether it fails or succeeds is irrelevant. What matters is that it will stir the ‘national spirit’ and inspire our youth. No price is too high to pay for this, certainly not the mission’s estimated cost of Rs 460 crores.

At the risk of being branded a spoilsport, this Column argues that the Mars mission is overwhelmingly irrelevant to space science and won’t advance the frontiers of knowledge. It will divert attention from the real technological challenges facing the Indian space programme, and will further distort our science and technology priorities. India’s presumed gains from the mission in ‘international prestige’ will prove minuscule and ephemeral. Worse, the mission has nasty military implications. It will draw India into dangerous missile race and space rivalry with China. The mission is thus vulnerable to serious criticism quite independently of the admittedly small Rs 460-crore bill. Put bluntly, it’s a waste of time and energy.

The media declared the mission successful even before Mangalyaan left the Earth’s gravity-field. But the spacecraft failed to reach the planned apogee (maximum height) of 1,00,000 km after the first three orbits around earth. ISRO didn’t anticipate the glitch, but says it has fixed it.

However, the real problems lie ahead: in raising the spacecraft’s orbit to 2,00,000 km, flinging it into inter-planetary space by 1 December, and placing it in an orbit around Mars next September.

As the partially-failed 2008-2009 Chadrayaan moon mission showed, ISRO hasn’t mastered the technologies involved in such complex manoeuvres. Its past claims to the contrary proved wrong, as we see below. So the possibility of major snags in the Mangalyaan mission can’t be dismissed. Mars missions worldwide have had a 50 per cent-plus failure rate. Even Japan and China failed to place orbiters around Mars. ISRO hurriedly developed Mangalyaan in just 15 months, whereas the US NASA’s or European Space Agency’s development time is 36 to 48 months – despite the fact that their spacecraft, unlike ISRO’s, mainly use previously-validated hardware.

However, even if all goes according to plan, Mangalyaan will be placed in a 366 km x 80,000 km orbit that’s so distant from Mars that it can observe very little, not even a fraction of what US and European Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Express have done. Mangalyaan weighs 1,350 kg, but only carries a small scientific payload weighing just 13 kg, compared to the Mars Express’s 116 kg. This paucity of instrumentation severely limits the extent and quality of Mangalyaan’s observations. It’s cannot add significantly to what’s already known about Martian topography or atmosphere. The Global Surveyor took over 600 million readings of surface elevations. Mangalyaan cannot even take a tiny fraction of this. The US’s Curiosity – which landed and roved on Mars – couldn’t find methane even in the parts-per-million range. It would be a miracle if Mangalyaan, a distant orbiter, finds methane traces. Methane’s presence would possibly, but not necessarily, suggest the existence of biological life.

Mangalyaan’s limitations basically arise from ISRO’s failure to complete the development of a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which can place heavy (2,000 kg-plus) satellites into a high orbit. Despite working on the GSLV for 15 years, ISRO hasn’t succeeded in operationalising it. Its test-flights have repeatedly failed. The last one had to abandoned in August. Instead of completing the GSLV’s development and launching a bigger spacecraft which could carry a weightier and richer scientific payload, ISRO hurriedly used the much less powerful Polar SLV to launch Mangalyaan. But the PSLV is only designed to put (small) satellites into a low-earth orbit. This greatly limited the speed Mangalyaan could acquire and constricted its abilities.

No less than former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair has criticised the Mars mission as ‘useless’ and a ‘showpiece event’ meant to cover up the GSLV programme’s glitches and failures. He believes ISRO should concentrate ‘on practical missions’ instead of ‘spending money on nothing’. According to him, no ‘new technology is involved’ in Mangalyaan.

Put simply, India’s Mars mission isn’t about science. It’s about creating a spectacle. ISRO’s only possible gain from it would be to develop familiarity with deep space communication technology used to command the spacecraft. Given the long distance between Earth and Mars, it would take six to 42 minutes (depending on Mangalyaan’s position) for radio signals to travel to mission control. Even here, ISRO will be dependent on help from NASA’s network of satellites and antennas based in Spain, Australia and the US to provide navigation and tracking support. Such cooperation has been in existence since the 2008 launch of the Chandrayaan-I moon orbiter, when ISRO flew two NASA instruments. Whether ISRO can itself develop such capability remains an open question.

At any rate, giving the GSLV top priority makes rational sense. It will not only furnish the basis of ISRO’s future programmes to develop new capabilities, but also allow it to tap into the global $2 billion market for commercial communications satellite launches. Another priority for ISRO is to analyse and resolve the problems that plagued Chandrayaan-I. Contrary to hype, the mission didn’t fulfil its stated goals. It was abandoned in just 10 months, instead of the planned two years –unlike most orbiters which fulfil or exceed their duration.

Surely, it’s incumbent upon ISRO to resolve these issues rather before rushing into a complicated mission like Mangalyaan. But it seems to have been bitten by the publicity bug. Spectacular missions like Mangalyaan and India’s recent launches of military and surveillance satellites have another negative consequence. These raise concerns in China about India’s space ‘ambitions’, and prompt a competitive response: constructing ‘our own comprehensive power’. It would be unwise for India to get into a space and anti-satellite (ASAT) missile race with China.

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai

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