"Mythbusting India's Mars Mission"
November 6th, 2013
The successful launch of India's Mars Orbiter Mission is a major step forward for an advancing Asian space power. The global space community has applauded the flight, which will help the world to better understand the red planet.
It's thus surprising to see such a high tide of denouncements and misjudgements for this mission circulating in the media and online forums. Weeks ago, we saw naive criticisms of China's upcoming Moon rover by a Chinese scientist in the Hong Kong press. Now India is in the line of fire with even more dubious comments. What's going on?
Some of this seems to stem from surprise. India has operated one of the world's most advanced space programs for decades, but it has largely escaped the limelight. This has partially been due to some bad communications strategies, but it's also because the program has been more focused on utilitarian goals than headline-grabbing feats in space. India operates its own space launch vehicles and builds its own satellites.
It is also one of a small number of nations to have successfully recovered a satellite from space. Indian satellites are used in communications, weather observation and land management. This vast nation would be much worse off without the benefits of its space program.
The high-profile Mars mission has served as a wake-up call to many people who don't pay much attention to spaceflight. They should understand that this Mars mission is simply another step in a large, long and diverse space program. India has been in space with force for decades. If this mission serves as a wake-up call for the world, so be it.
There are criticisms that money spent on the mission could or should be spent elsewhere. Such dubious claims have been made for every nation that has ventured into space. Generally, these theories have been proven to be somewhat bunk. Stopping space missions does not stop poverty. They also neglect the true economics of the mission. The Mars Orbiter Mission uses a moderately priced, existing launch vehicle design.
It also recycles an existing spacecraft body design, with modifications for deep space. While it is not as sophisticated as other current Mars missions, the pricetag for the Mars Orbiter mission is measured in the tens of millions of dollars. This is truly Mars exploration on a shoestring budget. India's Mars program promises to return useful engineering and scientific data for a price that puts other space agencies to shame!
The science looks good, too. There have been some criticisms of the decision to include a methane detector on the mission. Recent results from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover suggest that methane gas will be hard to find in the Martian atmosphere, and the Indian detector will return a negative result. This expectation is sometimes presented as if there is no point in flying the methane experiment on the Mars Orbiter Mission.
Again, this is silly. Science is not a treasure hunt. It is the quest for truth, even when the truth is not as inspiring as our expectations. The Indian mission will nicely complement the ground data from NASA's rover. Two independent results from different missions in different places will forge a stronger case. There is probably no methane on Mars, and the data from these two missions will settle the question.
In addition, there are four other scientific payloads on the mission, including a colour camera. All of them are worthwhile. The heavy focus on the Martian atmosphere by this mission also offers more bang for the buck.
The fate of the Martian atmosphere, which is believed to have been thicker in the past, is one of the hottest questions in planetary science today. Like NASA's upcoming MAVEN mission, itself largely focused on atmospheric questions, India's orbiter will help to resolve other mysteries besides the hunt for methane.
Good science. National pride. Technical advances. Inspiration for the world. India's first step towards Mars is worth the price.