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Oct 31, 2013 at 09:01am IST

India's Mars mission: The debate of why now and why not

Bangalore: No major project in India, it seems, gets away without a few nay-sayers. There has always been some criticism against every action of a government agency. And so it is with the Rs 450-crore Mars Orbiter Mission of ISRO.

But when the criticism comes from someone as senior as ISRO's own former Chairman - a veteran space scientist - it can't be shunned as non-constructive. And though some believe that former Chairman Dr G Madhavan Nair has taken this personally (Dr Nair was investigated three years back for a possible scam in an agreement with a private company where ISRO allowed that company to use S-band spectrum, technology for which was to be enabled by ISRO. The scam was never proven and many seniors in the scientific community feel he was wronged), the fact is that Nair himself initiated work on the Mars mission more than five years back.

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"I am totally for exploring Mars because that is going to be the next target after moon. My contention is that it has to be done properly with complete set of instruments and with proper orbit. They are not able to reach a circular orbit around Mars now. Instead, they're (settling) on a highly elliptical orbit. The closest distance between the orbiter and Mars is about 360 km. The farthest is around 80,000 km. Any specialist on remote sensing will tell you, this is the wrong kind of orbit to enable any clear observation of a planet. The orbit has to be near circular. So, that's the first compromise. Net result: once in 4 days or so, it will have the closest approach to Mars. That too, maybe for 30-40 min, it can have a close observation," says Dr Nair.

The current mission is both hasty and ineffective, he feels. The original plan was to carry 15 instruments on board the spacecraft. This has now been cut to just five - which could hardly give a precise understanding of the red planet

But ISRO scientists say they are running against time. You only get an opportunity to send missions to Mars once in 3 years (a launch window is possible, considering factors like distance and navigation - only approximately once in 3 years). So 2013 was not a date to be missed.

"Windows available for us to have a launch are limited. It comes once in 26 months. The immediate window is October 2013 and we took the decision to do this mission in 2011. So time has been the essence," argues ISRO's current chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan.

There's another issue as to why is ISRO spending so much time and money on a mission to Mars when it could be using those resources for better navigation and communication satellites - satellites that link the country better, satellites that are crucial to assess cyclones and floods here on earth.

"It is not value for money, that's what I feel. If we would've done this for Rs 100 crore, then, yes, fine. Rs 460 crore and sacrificing on our own navigation and communication system? That's the basic difference of opinion. With regard to priorities, we know there is severe shortage of communication transponders in the country. We need to prioritise that," said Dr Nair.

The question is whether the decision to launch a Mars orbiter was hasty and whether it is just an attempt to prove 'me-too' to stay in the space race. Well, the other side of their argument is - if we didn't attempt this, we will never know what we are missing out on.

And ISRO's defence is that you cannot trip up on scientific missions like MOM, just to enable better connectivity. After all, science and research is ISRO's core strength.

"These are like five fingers of your hand. You require development in all those directions. You require communication transponders, that is one of our priorities, yes. You require navigation satellites, we are already working on a network of navigation satellites. We are in the forefront in the world on satellite applications and we continue to be. But space science - about 7 to 8 per cent of our effort is towards science. We need it," Dr Radhakrishnan countered.

And that's why, say veterans like UR Rao, there is a lot more riding on ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission than just a space craft that takes pictures and produces maps.

"We call ourselves extremely forward-looking, etc. But in reality, most scientists agree we haven't even reached the first stage of civilisation. The first stage of civilisation is when you get out of your cradle. What happens to a child? He starts walking. We haven't done that. We are still in our cradle, our cradle is Earth. We haven't got out of it. So how can we say that we are so advanced ? The day we go to inter-planetary space, go to Mars - then we have stepped out of our cradle. And the day we go beyond our planetary system, our galaxy - that is the next stage of civilisation," Rao, head of the governing council of ISRO's Physical REsearch Lab, argues.

So there are dreams that go beyond Mars, ones that can only be realized after we reach Mars first.