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Qualms About India's Plan for a 2013 Mars Mission

Artist's conception of the Mars Orbiter Mission

Artist's conception of the Mars Orbiter Mission

Nesnad/Wikimedia Commons

NEW DEHLI—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it official in his 15 August Independence Day address: India will be launching a $100 million spacecraft to Mars, possibly as soon as November 2013. However, the mission is already being criticized for extravagance and poor planning.

The project, which received cabinet approval a few weeks ago, would place a satellite in an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet and monitor its atmosphere. Among the instruments being considered to ride aboard the craft—known as Mangalyaan or "auspicious vehicle to Mars"—are a multispectral camera, sophisticated spectrometers, and a highly sensitive methane sensor. One aim, according to documents obtained by Science from the national space agency, is to assess “whether Mars has a biosphere or even an environment in which life could have evolved.”

Mangalyaan would be "a national waste," says G. Madhavan Nair, the former chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He oversaw India's first imaging mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, but recently has fallen out with ISRO management. He describes the Mars project as "a half-baked, half-cooked mission being attempted in undue haste with misplaced objectives."

Skeptics also can be found among social scientists such as Jean Drèze, a development economist at the Delhi School of Economics here. "I don't understand the importance of India sending a space mission to Mars when half of its children are undernourished and half of all Indian families have no access to sanitation," Drèze told the Financial Times. He suggested it was "part of the Indian elite's delusional quest for superpower status."

A top government official who reviewed the Mangalyaan project but didn’t want to be named rejects the argument that India should give priority to social spending, saying: "I think we have heard these arguments since the 1960s about a poor country not needing or affording a space program. If we can't dare dream big it would leave us as hewers of wood and drawers of water! India is today too big to be just living on the fringes of high technology."

Physicist Krishan Lal, president of the Indian National Science Academy here, says it would have been "better if the larger scientific community were also consulted by ISRO on the scientific merits of the Mars mission," as was done before the initiation of the moon probe. Still, Lal says of the Mars program: "I welcome this development."

Others question the tone of the prime minister’s announcement. Why is it called a "huge step," some ask, if six nations have already attempted missions to Mars, and the United States now has two NASA rovers beaming data back from the planet's surface? And why, they ask, is India in a hurry to undertake a mission alone in 2013? The plan contrasts with Chandrayaan-1, which included international partners and took more than a decade to build and launch.

D. Raghunandan, a mechanical engineer and secretary of the independent Delhi Science Forum here, sees the Mars project as "a highly suboptimal mission with limited scientific objectives." He argues that ISRO should have waited until a larger rocket—the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)—is available, which he says was "really the original plan." But ISRO defends its decision to use the smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, saying that GSLV is out of commission due to two back-to-back failures in 2010. According to ISRO, India would miss the earliest opportunity to reach Mars if it waited for the bigger GSLV to be up and running. Mars makes an approach to Earth in 2013; if India missed that launch window it would have to wait until 2016 for the next good opportunity.

Other experts suggest that it is not so much the planetary configuration as Earthbound geopolitical considerations that weigh on India’s mind, specifically the rivalry with China. China has been ahead of India in reaching many space goals—including a survey of the moon—but Indian leaders may see the Mars race as a chance for India to take the lead. In November 2011, China's orbiter Yinghuo-1, which was set to ride to Mars on the Russian satellite Phobos-Grunt, ended in disaster when managers lost control of the satellite. This gave India a chance to march ahead.

ISRO's current head, K. Radhakrishnan, told Science in June that "it is high time ISRO got out of making assembly line repeats of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and communication satellites." That is best done by industry, he argued. He said that the nation's "next big challenge" was to go to Mars.

Critics say it is a huge challenge. Nair, for example, says that the highly elliptical orbit planned for Mangalyaan will take it far from the planet most of the time, and in his opinion the "minuscule 25 kg scientific payload" may not be able to contribute much to the understanding Mars. Nair feels money would be better spent improving the big GSLV rocket. It could launch a more robust Mars mission and be used for India’s planned missions to study an asteroid, and even for human space flight.

Even The Times of India urged caution in a 9 August editorial, arguing that when the economy is in doldrums, "the Indian space program would do well to grow at its own pace rather than proceed with expensive and imitative projects out of a false sense of national pride." But ISRO doesn’t agree; in an official document submitted to the government for the approval of the Mars mission, it says, "India cannot afford to lag behind in its independent exploration of the Red Planet."