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India blazes a trail with Mars mission

India blazes a trail with Mars mission

"I would submit that the highest possible form of national security, well above having better guns and bombs than everyone else, well above 'speaking softly and carrying a big stick, as President Roosevelt suggested, is the security which comes from being a nation which does the kinds of things that make other countries want to join with us to do them. If this is not 'strategic', then what is?"

- Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator.

Space-faring India's first Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) takes off from the country's eastern seaboard Tuesday, marking the 50th anniversary of its sending a rocket for the first time. Informally called Mangalyaan (Marscraft), it would study the surface and atmospheric composition in the Red Planet and look for signs of life.

As part of the scaled up space programme, the country's first interplanetary probe in a way is a statement to the world on India's technological capability, skilled workforce, and frugal engineering, that it is a low-cost player in the high-cost exploration business. And there is a space economy in the making.

Just consider this. The Rs.450-crore (Rs 4.5 bn/$74 million) mission is being executed in just 15 months after the government approved it in August 2012. The satellite is built by Indian scientists and engineers. It is being launched from Indian soil, using an indigenous rocket and would carry home-grown instruments to read the biochemistry of the intriguing planet.

The Nov 5 blast-off is also significant as it marks the silver jubilee of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The spacecraft, once launched aboard the PSLV-c25 (PSLV XL), would go around the earth for about 25 days before embarking on a 300-day voyage to the Martian orbit where it is planned to reach in September 2014.

The 1,350 kg craft is carrying five compact instruments, which will study the morphology, minerology and the Martian atmosphere, says the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). In particular, it will look for evidence of methane, whose presence can indicate if earth's closest neighbour has an environment to support life. It would also help fill the technology gaps in interplanetary explorations.

This awesome odyssey has generated massive interest across the world. If it ends in success, India would be one of the elite few of space powers to have explored the planet, after the former Soviet Union, the United States and Europe.

For India, it has been an incredible journey. At the inception of the space programme in the 1960s, the focus was on "technology independence" and small rockets were launched to investigate the ionosphere over the magnetic equator that passes over Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram. Soon the potential of space technology for social benefits was realised and since then the space programme has been an integral part of the development agenda.

Also, the space programme is mostly self-reliant -- a consequence of the "technology denials" by the US and Europe following the 1974 nuclear tests.

And the capabilities established in the process have been used in a host of sectors like communication, education and healthcare. About 270 technologies developed for the space programme have been transferred to industries for commercial applications.

Koppillil Radhakrishnan, ISRO chairman, says some of the outcomes of the MOM, for example the in-built autonomy that is provided in this spacecraft, can become a reality as a product or system and be used in satellites to improve their efficiency.

"So they percolate to application, which is our main objective. It could be something like forecasting cyclones. There is always relevance for a mission such as this."

While the current debate in a democracy like India over spending millions to increase space presence and the controversy about life in the pink planet will go on, it is a fact that the nation cannot afford to ignore space as a vital resource. Space for India today is "not merely a destination"; it is an engine that has become critical to its economic growth, strategic interests and very way of life.

Already there is talk in countries such as the US and China about building space-based infrastructure for possible bases or colonies on the moon and Mars. It is said that like the naval powers of olden days which were able to set up colonies on other continents, it will be countries that have established programmes and research which would have the advantage on the moon or Mars.

Radhakrishnan says that the country's first Martian exploration is meant for undertaking meaningful research of a planet that could be "possibly a future habitat... 20 or 30 years from now."

Most scientists feel Mars is good enough for humans to settle down at some point.

U R Rao, eminent space scientist who led the country's space programme between 1984 and 1994, questions the critics of the mission. Just as the country's moon mission, Chandrayan-I, found water molecules in lunar soil, the Mars mission, he says, will lead to some "important findings".

Others believe the achievements from technology development and strategic capabilities can be applied to other sectors of the economy, triggering innovation, and help the emerging space economy.

Susmita Mohanty, founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, India's first private space start-up, says Indian companies can leverage the impressive portfolio of space products and services that ISRO has developed over four decades to serve its needs, exploit the satellite service market, and become competitive in the global marketplace.

This, however, requires India to overhaul its space policy. It also requires ISRO to amend its policy on contracts, Indian industry to share risk and investment, and the two to co-develop and co-innovate, adds Mohanty, a spaceship designer who earlier worked on Shuttle-Mir missions at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The global space economy in 2012 was $304.31 billion in government budgets and commercial revenue. A majority of the revenue came from commercial growth -- infrastructure and support industries, space products and services, GPS devices and chipsets and DTH television.

A successful Mars mission would also be a great booster for India's space diplomacy. Over the years, the Indian space programme has gone global, sharing its experience with other countries. It has set up the Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific at Dehra Dun under UN sponsorship.

Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, former ISRO chairman, believes the Mars mission could lead to significant international collaborations and debunk the view that India is competing with China.

"When we have some capabilities there will be people wanting to join us," says Radhakrishnan.

In the immediate future, ISRO will work with NASA to develop a complex satellite with dual frequency radar systems which is planned for 2019-20. The satellite will be built and launched by ISRO.

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