Isro's Mars Mission: Why Mangalyaan's path is full of riders

The Mars Orbiter is supposed to circle the earth for the next 20 to 25 days and will then try to leave the earth's orbit and enter the Mars orbit. This second phase, post launch, is the biggest stumbling block most satellites sent to Mars have faced.

'Destination Mars: India begins long march in style' announces the Times of India front page headline. 'Near perfect launch', says The Indian Express and today's DNA takes the country's adulation for Isro's Mars Mission to jingoistic extremes by declaring, 'This Diwali, India sends a gift to Mars'. Specks of doubt, however, seem to have surfaced on the rousing wave of applause. The criticism against the logic of spending Rs 450 crore on a space mission in a country that is still struggling to provide its citizens basic security of survival apart, experts have predicted that the Mars Orbiter Mangalyaan will reportedly face a bunch of challenges, now that it has taken off.

The Mars Orbiter is supposed to circle the earth for the next 20 to 25 days and will then try to leave the earth's orbit and enter the Mars orbit. This second phase, post launch, is the biggest stumbling block most satellites sent to Mars have faced. In fact, Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan had told the media that this is the phase where 30 Mars Missions of the 51 launched till date, have failed.

The rocket blasts off from Sriharikota. PTI.

The rocket blasts off from Sriharikota. PTI.

There has been a fairly strong amount of criticism regarding the technology put in use to create the Mangalyaan hailed as the most inexpensive Mars mission till date. Mechanical engineer D Raghunandan, also secretary of the Delhi Science Forum, told the Science Insider that the project has several scientific limitations which narrows its scope. He argued that the ISRO should have waited for the bigger and the advancedGeosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rocket and not opted for thePolar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket to launch its satellite. Isro, however, defended its decision saying that the GSLV has failed twice in two space missions in 2010 and it wasn't advisable to wait for the new batch of rockets to arrive since that would delay the project for at least three years.

Former Isro chairman G Madhavan Nair has been a serial critic of the project and has said, 'that the highly elliptical orbit planned for Mangalyaan will take it far from the planet most of the time, and the minuscule 25 kg scientific payload may not be able to contribute much to understanding Mars'.

Former President of India and scientist APJ Abdul Kalam also admitted that such missions are highly prone to failure in the second stage but there will be a lot to be learn from the failure, if at all. Amitabh Ghosh, who heads the science operations working group inNasa Mars Exploration Rover Mission, also expressed his scepticism by saying that if at all the Mars Rover is launched by India, the Isro will only be accomplishing what Nasa has in the 1960s and 70s. He suggested in an editorial on The Indian Express that instead of trying to follow what has already been accomplished in science, the Isro should have tried to do something different. "To be relevant, it should chart its own unique trajectory of frontline discoveries that will leave an imprint on space science and technology," said Ghosh.

Like Isro has itself admitted, the biggest challenge faced by the Orbiter will be on December 1, when the satellite will try entering the Mars Orbit after dragging itself out of the Earth's orbit. An article in the Business Standard reports:

"Radhakrishnan had earlier said in an interview that the first major challenge would be on December 1, at 12:42 am, when the orbiter is given the trans-Mars injection as it moves away from the Earth's sphere of influence and enters the heliocentric orbit, also called the trans-Martian orbit. That the Mars orbiter has to go a distance of 200 million km to 400 million km is itself a big challenge.When the spacecraft reached Mars in September 2014, the orbiter would have to be slowed, or it would disappear in space, he had said."

Experts have also pointed out that the Mangalyaan will be the first Isro spacecraft that will exit the Earth's orbit and travel at least925,000 km in a heliocentric cruise phase where it will have to survive the gravitational pull of the Sun and other planets.

According to a report on The Telegraph, it slowing down the orbiter while it approaches Mars will be something that the Isro will be doing for the first time in their history of space experiments and the space agency's engineers have admitted that it will be difficult to fire an engine to reduce its speed after 300 days of leaving it as it is. A senior Isro engineer told The Telegraph:

"We've tried to guard against performance degradation after this break of 300 days," a senior Isro engineer said. But the engine's successful firing will be crucial to placing the orbiter into its intended elliptical orbit with 365km and 80,000km as the closest and most distant points.

A Arunan, project director of the Mars mission, also predicted that the Orbiter might face a fuel crunch if it faces any orbital deviations in its journey.

"The orbiter carries about 850kg of propellant, and each ORM will use up some of this fuel. Any orbital deviations could cause more fuel to be used up for corrections and shorten the spacecraft's lifespan in Mars orbit."If the trans-Martian insertion (on November 30-December 1) is delayed, then there will be a crunch on the onboard fuel," said A. Arunan, project director of the Mars mission."

Amid the severe criticism faced at home and abroad (China had said before the launch that a country with 320 million people reeling under poverty has no business spending on a Mars mission), there have been some voices of encouragement. Foreign policy commentator Kabir Taneja told The Christian Science Monitor that the budget that the whole country is up in arms against is that of four big Bollywood movies and this is the minimum leeway that should be given to ambitious science research in India.

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