Red Alert! India goes to Mars! – Part 1

Red Alert! India goes to Mars! – Part 1

Do you know or remember what it is to love your job? To be involved in it with such passion that your workplace becomes the place where you live, that every fibre of your being is focused on one thing and one thing alone — that the job is done and done perfectly?

If you don’t know how this feels, here’s a suggestion: Take a trip to Bengaluru. Lurk outside one of the several workplaces staffed by scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). (Do this discreetly; the security personnel are not very fond of unauthorised lurkers.) Then look at the way they walk: Straight backs. Heads high. Filled with purpose. And then go back to your own workplace, inspired.

You know, of course, why the people at ISRO are so conspicuously in love with their jobs. possibly more at this time than any other. Their spacecraft for the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), India’s first attempt at an interplanetary mission, is well on its way to the Red Planet. It left Earth’s sphere of influence (the area of space over which our home planet exerts a gravitational pull) on December 4, making us only the fourth country in the world and the first Asian nation to accomplish such a feat. Not to mention the first country in the world to get it right on the first attempt. And all this in 15 months.

MOM is now travelling around the sun on a path and velocity that will, in September 2014, first have it overtake Mars on that planet’s own route around the sun, then slow down and allow itself to be captured by Mars’s gravity as the planet catches up with it.

India has made and launched rockets and satellites for so long that we’ve taken them for granted. But special mention must be made of India launching a fully indigenous mission to the moon with Chandrayaan in 2008. Completing that mission, not just without a hitch but also with knowledge that has eluded other missions since the Soviets’ first-ever successful moon mission in 1959, is remarkable. And now heading out of the reasonably well-known turf around our planet with an indigenous mission to Mars? The idea seems like something out of a sci-fi novel.


But this is not science fiction. Far from it. This is science at its most glorious, allowing Indian scientists to do what they do best: find solutions to challenges they only dreamt of earlier. As the fascinating Facebook page of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission tells us: “Kashmir to Kanyakumari! Imagine throwing a peanut from an express train, speeding out of Jammu Tawi railway station, in such a way that it should land in the pocket of a captain steering a ferry zipping into the jetty at Kanyakumari. That’s simpler than making MOM orbit Mars!”

And if you think that’s an exaggeration, you are soooo wrong!


Taking a short tiffin break in the canteen at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) office in Bengaluru, a group of scientists is having a tough time trying to explain just what it takes to pull off an operation like MOM. As B S Chandrashekar, director, ISTRAC, says, “In one sense, it is not very different from ISRO’s other missions.” But because MOM is ISRO’s first-ever interplanetary mission, it has challenges that these scientists — who’ve been with ISRO for years — have never faced before.

It called for new types of technology, points out Dr V Kesavaraju, post-launch mission director, MOM, who has a 30-year history with the organisation. “And,” says P Robert, operations director, MOM, who’s been with ISRO since 1990, “Though every mission has its own complexities and challenges that expand our horizons, MOM gives us a sense of satisfaction over lessons we’ve learned, and a sense of excitement, and a big boost of confidence for the next challenge we face.”


Consider its elements. You need a rocket (or launch vehicle) that will take the spacecraft out to precisely where it must begin its journey. You need a spacecraft that must – for the 300 days of the journey from Earth to the Mars orbit, plus roughly 180 days to accomplish the mission’s objectives once there — withstand a fairly hostile environment, which includes solar winds, harmful radiation, and unimaginable temperatures.
The spacecraft must also carry enough propellant to power itself when required to move from one trajectory to another. And it must also be able to correct itself autonomously should anything go wrong, because as it gets further away from Earth, you will no longer be able to control it in real time. Signals to and from the spacecraft will take longer and longer to be transmitted, with a lag (known as time drift) of 12-and-a-half minutes each way when it’s actually in the Mars orbit. On the ground, you need a deep space network (powerful antennas) spread all across the world, to be able to monitor the spacecraft, receive its signals and send it commands. You also need people and machines to process, distribute and store the information that the scientific equipment in the spacecraft sends back.

You can read part 2 of this article here.

Piyush Rajput About the author
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