Mangalyaan: Why India’s First Mars Mission Is Very Important to the World

Nov 09, 2013

I’m sure everyone’s heard about it – some (including me) watched the whole thing on TV – India’s first Mars mission was a much anticipated and much-celebrated event. But what I, and many others I’m sure, did not realize at first is the global importance of Mangalyaan, the cheapest Mars mission ever. The Mars Orbiter Mission, adorably acronymed MOM, and otherwise known as Mangalyaan (“Mars craft”), was launched with India’s homegrown PSLV rocket on the 5th of this month from Sriharikota, Chennai.

It is going to study methane amounts in the Mars atmosphere, and also, uniquely, search for water on Mars. If successful, it will make the Indian Space Research Organisation only the fourth space agency to have successfully launched a mission to Mars, after NASA (USA), the European Space Agency, and Russia. Statistically, the odds are against it – out of every 10 missions to Mars launched, 6 failed. That makes it a huge thing for India if successful – only the fourth, and the first Asian/Third World, country to do something so difficult.

However, there is another, greater, significance of this mission from the point of view of global space travel in general. The mission costs $69m – I know that sounds like a lot – but that is just one-tenth the cost of NASA’s Mars mission to be launched later next week. Just think – 671m vs 69m. “How????” is the first thing that comes to mind – and that is what makes this mission so important that the whole world is watching. It employs an entirely new technique of launch that has made it the cheapest Mars mission ever (ignoring failures, of course) – and so much hinges on its success that NASA’s scientists wished it success via email and told the team to have some lucky peanuts before the launch! Aside from cheap labour and efficient engineering – the main reason its so cheap is that it will use the “slingshot” technique, never before used in a Mars mission, to reach there.

Basically, it will keep orbiting Earth – using its jets to enter a larger, faster orbit every time – a bit like an Olympic hammer thrower – spinning round and and round with the hammer going faster every revolution, and then at the last turn he lets go and the hammer is sent flying. Similarly, the Mangalyaan fires its jets every revolution making the next one faster and larger until the last revolution – where the orbit is large enough and its going fast enough that one last burn allows it to be thrown or ‘slingshotted’ with the help of Earth’s gravity all the way to Mars. Its true that this method will make the travel time much longer (nearly a year) – but at this kind of cost, its worth it. If successful, it will revolutionise space travel, manned and unmanned, and perhaps, make space feasible.

Photo Credits: Arun Sankar K/AP

References: Popular Science, The Economic Times, Space Flight Now, FirstPost, npr.org, ABC, BBC, The Guardian

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