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'A major achievement'

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
September 24, 2014

India has made history by becoming the first nation to reach Mars and enter the planet's orbit in its maiden mission, a move that catapults the country into the scientific world stage, analyst David Alexander tells DW.

Der Planet Mars Aufnahme aus dem Weltraum
Image: imago/United Archives

India's low-cost Mangalyaan spacecraft entered orbit around the Red Planet on Wednesday, September 24, after a 10-month-long journey. The success of the mission represents a milestone in the country's space program. "We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible," said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Indian Space Research Organization's (ISRO) headquarters near Bangalore.

With this achievement, India joins a club of deep space explorers such as the United States, Russia and Europe, all of which have reached Mars. The success is also a reason for national pride as India became the first single nation to reach the Red Planet and enter orbit at its first go. More than half of all missions to the planet have failed, including China's in 2011 and Japan's in 2003. Moreover, at a cost of 74 million USD, the mission cost is less than the estimated 100 million USD budget of the Hollywood blockbuster "Gravity" and represents just a fraction of NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, which began to successfully orbit the planet just a few days ago.

David Alexander, Director of the US-based Rice Space Institute, says in a DW interview that the success of India's Mars mission represents a major achievement, and that the technological capability being demonstrated by the South Asian nation and the knowledge gained from the operations of the mission will be invaluable, both in the training of flight operations and mission control staff, as well as in future launches.

DW: What does the successful positioning of a satellite into the orbit of Mars say about India's technological prowess?

David Alexander: The successful insertion of Mangalyaan into Mars' orbit is a very noteworthy achievement. While we have been enjoying great successes like the Mars Rovers and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, historically only about half of the missions to Mars have been successful, regardless of the country of origin.

David Alexander US Raumfahrt Experte
Alexander: 'The success of the mission demonstrates India's capability to perform complex manuevers in space'Image: Rice Space Institute

For India to reach Mars orbit on its first attempt is a real cause for celebration as it demonstrates that India and the ISRO have the capability to perform these complex maneuvers and this will bode well for future missions. Of course, a single success does not guarantee future successes, but it is indeed a major achievement.

The mission is also a great source of pride for the country as it puts Indians on the scientific world stage along with the Americans, Russians and others. I think it is also important for the world to have another nation participating in the peaceful exploration of space. As we push further into the solar system and design larger and more complex missions, we will need to rely more on international collaboration and cooperation. In my opinion, the more countries that develop the capabilities the better it will be for all.

What are the benefits of having such a space program for a developing country like India?

There are many aspects to this, but I believe they can be generally categorized in two ways. The first is along the lines that the more nations participating in the peaceful exploration of space the more we will accomplish through joint efforts.

The second is more relevant to India's ability to enhance its development for the benefit of its own people. Having a robust well-thought-out space program that combines scientific exploration with space utilization - including telecommunications, weather monitoring, navigation - is of huge benefit in that it serves to provide a 21st century infrastructure to stimulate economic growth, drive education in technical disciplines, and provide dedicated resources and services that will aid the improvement and security of the country.

What is the aim of India's Mars Orbiter Mission?

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is for the most part a technology demonstration mission. India is proving that it can successfully deliver a payload safely to orbit about Mars. The technological capability being demonstrated and the knowledge gained from the operations of the mission will be invaluable in future developments and also in the training of the flight operations and mission control staff. All of this capability can be carried forward to future launches and operations.

Bildergalerie Indien Mars Orbiter Mangalyaan
The coming years will see an increasing number of partnerships in terms of space exploration, Alexander believesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Indian Space Research Organisation

On the scientific side, MOM is a relatively modest mission, providing some imaging and spectroscopic observations of the Martian surface and some dynamics and composition studies of the atmosphere. The observations I am most excited about are those studying the methane emissions.

The sustained presence of methane observed by previous missions suggests that an active production mechanism is at work, most likely tectonic in nature, although there are some suggestions that it may point to a biological origin. The MOM observations will help increase our knowledge of the methane plumes and possibly provide some clues as to their origin.

How did India manage to successfully launch a probe to Mars at such a low cost?

The simplest answer is that costs in India, particularly salaries, are significantly less than that in the US. Over the course of several years, through the development, launch and operations involving a large number of personnel, the difference in cost can become quite large.

In addition, the MAVEN mission, which just went into Mars orbit recently and cost 670 million USD, is the latest in a long line of US missions to Mars, and is significantly more advanced than the Indian mission, building on the science of previous orbiters and landers. The MAVEN mission has a large suite of instruments designed to perform a comprehensive study of the Martian atmosphere. As a reference, MOM has an instrument suite with a mass of about 13 kilograms, while the MAVEN suite comes in at about 65 kilograms.

The infrastructure needed to support such a large payload also adds to the mass and cost. Having said this, though, one cannot praise the Indian scientists and engineers enough for what they have been able to do with such relatively meager resources.

Some say that with its relatively inexpensive program, India could become a major player in the business of sending satellites and other vehicles into space. What is your take on this?

The Europeans are the main providers of satellite launches globally at the moment. The Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle has proven to be a very reliable vehicle and on the world market the significantly lower costs make it a contender to compete with the more established nations.

Mission success is critical and so it will take a while to make significant in-roads into the launch market but they are certainly making a strong case and with some smart marketing and strategic partnering there is no reason to assume that the growing Indian share of the market will slow.

Many analysts argue that there is an Asian space race developing between China and India?

I prefer not to think of it as a space race in the same sense as the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s and 1970s, which was driven by different objectives. Certainly India and China are emerging as strong space nations in their own right. They both have modest but well thought out programs that are ambitious but grounded, building up their capability with each successful mission.

Bildergalerie Indien Mars Orbiter Mangalyaan
India's Mars Orbiter Mission is for the most part a technology demonstration mission, says AlexanderImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Indian Space Research Organisation

As they expand their portfolios in space I think both nations will find that partnership and collaboration will benefit them more in terms of scientific exploration. I think there will always be significant competition in the commercial launch arena as is the case now.

In the coming years, I think we will see increasing partnerships not only between India and China but also separately with the Europeans, Russia and hopefully, with the US. I think these nations will ultimately follow the US lead and develop stronger private space industries, increasingly less reliant on government support and treating space as a business opportunity for providing services and resources to customers back on earth.

David Alexander is Director of the Rice Space Institute in the United States. He is also Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University.

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