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New Delhi: Myopic beyond Mars

November 06, 2013

Gateway House/by Chaitanya Giri

At a time when China has invested substantially in its space projects and Russia is invigorating its space exploration, India too must develop a strategically-designed programme. The successful launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission should give New Delhi enough reason to increase India’s space footprint


The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) debut Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), from Sriharikota in India, which was launched on November 5, is one of two lift-offs scheduled for the November 2013 launch window to Mars – the other is National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) MAVEN from Cape Canaveral in the U.S. on November 18.

The arrival of MOM in a highly elliptical orbit of Mars in September 2014 should give New Delhi enough reason to ramp up India’s space programme and become an expeditionary power, but without falling prey to any race in space.

In a space race, two states compete to reach a celestial location using a technology demonstration platform. The MOM is unlikely to stoke a space race in Asia with China; if it were part of a race, the Chinese Yinghuo-2 spacecraft would have been Mars-bound in the same 2013 launch window.

If successful, India will be the first Asian nation to reach Mars. However, it is worth recalling that the first nation to demonstrate a soft-landing on Mars – the Soviet Union, with the Mars 3 spacecraft in 1963 – today does not have a Mars exploration programme. For New Delhi to move successfully on the space track, it has to work to build, maintain, and regularly update space research and development infrastructure; cultivate human resources and faculties; chart targeted long-duration exploration programmes; and route investments via technology demonstrator missions and spin-offs.

China has made huge investments in its lunar exploration and manned space programmes. Both are attaining technological maturity, earning rich dividends for Beijing. For example, China’s second robotic lunar orbiter Chang’e-2 performed a direct trajectory from Earth towards the Moon without performing orbital burns in Earth’s orbit, thus conserving the spacecraft’s valuable fuel; it then became the first spacecraft to conduct a direct transfer from lunar circular orbit to Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point – the location for numerous deep space observatories and a potential site for space stations in the future. Thereafter, it departed L2 to perform a fly-by of the asteroid 4179 Toutatis. Attaining such multiple objectives in a single mission is a hallmark of a strategically designed space programme.

China National Space Administration (CNSA) plans to launch Chang’e-3 equipped with an orbiter, lander and a 120 kilogramme rover in December 2013; next on the list is a back-up mission, the Chang’e-4 in 2015, and a lunar sample-return mission Chang’e-5 in 2017. A permanent manned space station in the low Earth orbit by 2020 and a manned moon mission by 2025 will provide China with a prominent Near-Earth space framework.

After the failure of the Russia’s Mars bound Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, in which CNSA contributed the Yinghou-1 probe, Beijing has not formally announced a mission to Mars. But there is a high probability of an announcement in the Chinese thirteenth five-year plan (2015-2020). Beijing has been slow on Mars because it is not interested in going places; it is rather strengthening its footprint in Near-Earth space.

The predecessor of the current Russian Federal Space Agency’s (Roscosmos), the Soviet Space Programme, consisted of numerous independent design bureaus. It had intermittent successes with the Venera and Vega programs to the planet Venus, and the Mars probe programme and the Luna and Zond programmes to the Moon. Even after the formation of Roscosmos in 1991, a separate military space-operations branch, Russian Space Forces, conducted the unsuccessful Mars 96 mission. It was in 2011, when Roscosmos entirely operated its first exploration mission Phobos-Grunt. However, revisiting Mars still remains an undertaking for Moscow. In spite of an erratic progress with exploration missions, the Russian space programme continually and effectively stressed on maintaining manned platforms in low earth orbit, be it Soyuz, Salyut, Almaz, and MIR, or the to-be launched OPSEK space station, scheduled for the year 2028. After the expiry of the U.S. Space Shuttle programme in 2011 Roscosmos today continues with the majority replenishment missions to its consortium engagement in the International Space Station, signifying its long-held interests.

Moscow is currently busy reinvigorating its exploration programme. It now plans to streamline the numerous independently operating design bureaus under Roscosmos. Roscosmos has backed from providing rover for ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission, but it proposes to launch robotic lunar missions under the Luna-Grunt programme early in the 2020s. It also plans to provide two Proton rockets for the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (2016) and ExoMars (2018) missions, along with some heritage instruments from its earlier 2011 Phobos-Grunt mission. It is also contemplating launching Mars-Grunt in mid-2020. With these new developments, Roscosmos will come up with new exploration programmes during the next decade.

India’s MOM is a promising pilot exploration project for ISRO. Its highly elliptical orbit has been criticised for the low duration that it will spend close to Mars. Such an orbit makes the much-hyped surface methane detection and imaging Martian geology difficult. However, MOM might be used to perform close fly-by of the Martian moon Phobos. If organised, an additional fly-by of another Martian moon, Deimos, will be rewarding. This is because MOM will then be the only spacecraft to closely analyse Deimos after the NASA Viking 2 orbiter in 1977. A fly-by of both the asteroid-like moons will give ISRO an added advantage of comparative analyses of their origin, composition, and geology – a new science.

Although the use of ISRO’s workhorse Polar Synchronous Launch Vehicle is justified for a pilot project like MOM, in future ISRO will have to push for the use of the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle to increase payload capacity. The GSLV could then launch much heavier payload that subsequently contributes with myriad instruments and new science.

By 2020, India plans to launch an orbiter mission for the sun, Aditya-1, a second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, a Venus orbiter mission and MOM-2. However, as evident in the plan, ISRO has no prioritised exploration programme. These missions are ill- planned, as there has been no deliberation of lacunae in ISRO’s global infrastructure.

If New Delhi plans to conduct deep space missions, it must accelerate developing indigenous deep space network (DSN) infrastructure globally. It currently has its own DSN at various locations within India, but none overseas. It has been heavily dependent for Chandrayaan-1 and MOM on Russian facilities at Bearslake and U.S. facilities at Goldstone to form a global tracking network.

To overcome this dependence, New Delhi will have to establish indigenous network facilities in friendly countries. In terms of DSN infrastructure, ISRO’s own DSN near Bengaluru has a 32 metre (m) antenna, which is meagre in comparison to the Chinese plans to build a 64 m near Jiamusi, the U.S.’ existing 70 m at Goldstone and Russia’s 70 m at Ussuriisk. All these countries also maintain an international network – be it NASA’s DSN in California, Madrid, and Canberra or the recent Chinese plan to set up an antenna in South America along with its existing ones in its eastern-most Heilongjiang and western-most Kashgar provinces.

The second task for New Delhi is to understand the significance of distance and duration in space travel. Non-weapons grade plutonium-238 is a rare yet effective fuel for manned and outer solar system exploration. Both the U.S. and Russia have prominently used radioisotopes as energy source in spacecraft. After the shutdown of its only plutonium-238 source, the Savannah River site, the U.S. imported non-weapons grade plutonium-238 from Russia after 1988. However, when the Russian supplies diminished in 2010, NASA restarted indigenous plutonium-238 production. There is a possibility that Moscow wanted to arrest supplies in order to restart its own deep space exploration programme. China may probably follow suit very soon. New Delhi must understand the importance of such fuel, as it would be the key for future deep space endeavours.

ISRO correctly claims not to be part of any space race. Still, its imminent plans are miscalculated and inadequately prepared, which in the longer run will prove to be counterproductive. It must concentrate on developing a strategically-designed exploration programme to increase its footprint in space rather conducting waltzing-mice like missions. New Delhi’s exploration endeavours are still in their infancy and it will take some strategic thinking to match its more experienced contemporaries if India envisions becoming a hard power in a multi-polar world.

Chaitanya Giri is a Doctoral Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and a contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the writer)

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New Delhi: Myopic beyond Mars

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