Mars. Mystic planet, the enigma of astrologers, the anima mundi of astronomers and the eternal obsession of science fiction writers, who terrified the world with stories of red-skinned Martians, armed with killer lasers arriving from the Red Planet to invade Planet Earth. But on the morning of Wednesday (September 24, 2014), it was India’s 1,500kg Mars Orbiter Mission, affectionately nicknamed MOM, which invaded the Red Planet by flawlessly entering its atmosphere and going into orbit. Mangalyaan was launched on November 5 last year and had travelled over 650-million kilometres to reach Martian atmosphere. For India’s space programme that started its journey from the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, Kerala, in 1963 in a coconut plantation, with a local church serving as the main office, the bishop’s house as the workshop and the research lab set up in a cattleshed, MOM’s success is a triumphant turn in India’s ambition to become the Master of the Universe.
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MOM succeeded in its very first attempt, a world record since more than half the previous Mars mission attempts of other nations failed. “The odds were stacked against us. Of the 51 missions, attempted across the world so far, a mere 21 had succeeded. But we have prevailed,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India’s bid to become South Asia’s most powerful nation has put it in direct competition with China—apparent after Modi became prime minister. In the battle for space, the world’s newest space power showed that MOM’s success has scored over its only rival for supremacy in the region—China. Modi said, “Travelling an incredible distance, of over 650 million or 65 crore kms, we have gone beyond boundaries, of human enterprise and imagination.” But the competition of imagination continues between Asia’s two tigers—China plans to complete a manned space station in Mars by 2022. China’s joint mission with Russia, carrying the Mars satellite Yinhuo-1, stalled and fell back to Earth in 2011. Japan’s 1998 attempt with the Nozomi spacecraft ran out of fuel. A spacecraft, too, is known by the company it keeps—NASA’s two Mars rovers patrol the surface of the planet, a European orbiter and NASA orbiters, including the MAVEN are MOM’s co-travellers. It will map the Martian geography, study the atmosphere and look for signs of methane gas, an indication of life on Mars. What is even more significant is that MOM proved that Modi’s ‘Make in India’ push is eminently practical: the $74-million Indian craft cost only 11 per cent of the cost of making Maven. ISRO is one of the largest of eight government space agencies in the world.
Noted aerospace scientist Prof Roddam Narasimha speaks to Papiya Bhattacharya on the significance of the Mars Mission and India’s space programme at large. Excerpts from the interview
Not all of ISRO’s space forays are connected to social growth or technology demonstrations. The space agency provides technology multipliers like the GPS-aided GEO Augmented Navigation to enable higher accuracy for positioning and the RISAT 2, a day-and-night all-weather recon satellite to keep a close watch on our borders as well as scan for pirate ships in the Indian Ocean. ISRO has also launched the GSAT-7 which is dedicated only to the armed forces and is used mostly by the Indian Navy for strengthening its communication capabilities.
In ancient Roman belief systems, Mars is also the God of War. It is more than just the search for methane and the resources of the Universe that symbolises MOM’s orbit—it raises the possibility of a military space race over Asia. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Cold War was at its peak and the hawkish American President Ronald Reagan initiated the ‘Star Wars’ program to blow away any incoming Soviet missile out of its flight path into space. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as Star Wars, was initiated on March 23, 1983, to develop a sophisticated anti-ballistic missile system in order to prevent missile attacks from hostile nations. India’s missile launches, mainly aimed at showing space muscle at Pakistan and China, has had mixed success, unlike its space programme. But Western strategic thinkers have long suspected India of using civilian technology for military purposes because satellite launch vehicles and missiles deploy similar launch technology. In the late 20th century when India’s space power began to accelerate, a 9-tonne, solid-fuel rocket was used to power both the space rocket, SLV-3, and Agni-I and Agni-II missiles. PSLV, which has launched MOM, has recorded 22 successive successful flights from Sriharikota, and had also launched India’s first moon mission, Chandrayaan-I, in 2008.
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“In space we have to be at par. We cannot say that we would make products which cost less but can get part of the job done. You just cannot bargain with space and have to have the best technology,” says Professor U R Rao, former ISRO chairman.
India is seriously deliberating taking the reach of its strategic missiles to the next level. The Ministry of Defence is reportedly mulling the proposal to develop the top-secret intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) Surya 1 or 2, which can carry nuclear warheads to hit targets 10,000 km away. Surya’s test ascent will mark India rise into the elite missile club of China, USA, Russia, UK, France and Israel. The proposal to develop ICBM capabilities was moved by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in December 2012, and is currently being examined by the government with the final nod to come from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). After the successful test-launch of Agni III, which has a range of more than 3,000 km, in 2006, the Manmohan Singh government, bowing to pressure from the West, set a voluntary cap on developing missiles beyond 5,000-km range. Agni III proved DRDO’s capability to develop ICBMs. The ICBM acts as a deterrent for India which has fought five wars, in none of which it was the first mover. India is the only country apart from the big powers, which has the capability to launch an ICBM from a nuclear submarine.
Agni V, with its long reach of 8,000 km with low payload and 5,000 km with full payload and with MIRV (multiple independent re-entry vehicles) capability, gives India the missile reach to hit anywhere in China fired from any part of India. Not to mention Agni IV that can hit any part of China or Pakistan.
India’s indigenously designed and produced integrated missile development programme started in the late 1980s and has successfully test-fired the Prithvi, Akash and Agni series of missiles. It started comprehensive tests of a missile defence system in 2009 using radar technology, developed by the DRDO jointly with Israel and France. Agni-VI, which has multiple nuclear warheads, is in the development stage and has a range of 6,000 km. However, Agni-I, II, III, IV, V, the submarine-launched K-15 Sagarika and its land-based version Shaurya carry only one nuclear warhead. The supersonic cruise missile BrahMos can carry one conventional warhead. Agni VI’s design and engineering is finished. DRDO scientist have succeeded in anchoring four or six warheads on it, and mastered control over the dispersal pattern, which would release warheads one after another so that if one warhead hits one place, the next would fall 100 km away and so on. Both Agni V and Agni VI have three launch stages, are powered by solid propellants, and have a diameter of two metres. But Agni V weighs 50 tonnes and is 17.5 metres long, while Agni VI weighs 65-70-tonnes and would be 20 metres long. It can be taken by road to launch destinations and can even blast off from trucks.
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China fears India’s growing space capabilities; the US with bases in North Korea and warships off the coast of Japan could create a missile shield that encircles China. It suspects that any understanding between India, the US and Japan could enable them to shoot down any Chinese-launched ICBM. With the volatile situation in nuclear-empowered Pakistan and nearby Afghanistan, India’s powerful missile technology would act both as deterrent and offensive weaponry if needed.
On November 4, 2013, before the launch of the Mangalyaan, Radhakrishnan, accompanied by his wife Padmini, sought the blessings of Lord Balaji at Tirumala and of Lord Shiva at Srikalahasti close by. It is well known that all ISRO scientists visit Tirupati seeking divine blessings before the launch of any space mission. Mars, known as Mangal in Indian astrology, is a much-feared planet, capable of total destruction. But in its eponymous space traveller’s case, the gods have smiled on India.