As the sun rose over India yesterday morning, the whole world's media were raving about the success of India's Mars Orbiter Mission (alias MOM), which pushed the tiny spacecraft 'Mangalyaan' smoothly into an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet, after cruising in space for more than 300 days. The objective is to study prevailing conditions related to the weather, minerals and methane gas.
So India has now joined the Mars Club as its fourth member (after America, Soviet Russia and Europe) -- though juniormost, the first one to gain admission on its very first application. Out of 51 Mars missions undertaken so far in the world, 21 had failed; but, of course, ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) has certainly learnt some lessons from the unsuccessful attempts of other space agencies, as its Chairman has gladly acknowledged.
That's all true so far as the solo Marsbound marathon run is concerned. In terms of scientific objectives and achievements, ISRO's mission is admittedly modest and far less sophisticated than those of America's NASA. But of course, as the spectacular results of the Indo-American lunar adventure in 2010 showed, NASA does think of ISRO as a worthy associate.
On this very special and cheerworthy occasion, let me recall my comments on India's impressive space programs in three earlier contexts:
20 Oct. 2010
Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, NASA!
When I started writing this online column last month with an awesome vision of the Internet's apparently infinite dimensions, I knew I would find it necessary to follow it up with some reflections on the impact of modern science and technology on individuals and society. And I now realize it will have to be a very long series of essays, because the theme is extremely complex and bristles with so many intricate aspects. But rather than risking mental fatigue by considering the same issue week after week, let us spread out the core series a little, and take up some other lighter topics in the intervals!
In the context of the steady scientific progress made by India during the 20th century, I had made the following comment in the preceding essay (Psychology Of Turbulence, October 13): ".... And in the frenzied field of the ongoing information revolution today, India seems to be running a neck-to-neck race with the most advanced countries of the world".
Well, India today seems to be among the front-runners in other scientific fields also, like space exploration, for instance! Its very first moon mission, which seemed to have been on the brink of failure last year, actually turned out to be a great success.
I am, of course, referring to the unmanned lunar vehicle Chandrayaan-1, launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). which carried some instruments developed in India, and also some others sponsored by NASA in America, ESA (European Space Agency), and BAA (Bulgarian Aerospace Agency).
Chandrayaan was launched into lunar orbit in October 2008, and was expected to remain there for a couple of years. But within a few months, there was serious malfunction of some vital systems (including solar panels and star sensors which were essential for power supply and direction-finding); and there were no radio signals from August 29, 2009 due to failure of electronic components. Meanwhile, the vessel had gone round the moon more than 3,000 times, undertaken various useful experiments, and transmitted more than 70,000 images to the earth, some of them with very fine resolution upto five metres.
Back home, in India, there was great disappointment as the mission was declared closed prematurely. But although there was some resentment that ISRO hadn't fully disclosed the troubles as they arose, by and large there was no hostile criticism of ISRO's efforts, as there was a general awareness of the immensity of the venture and the equal chances of success and failure.
In an editorial rather emotionally titled Adieu, Chandrayaan-1, India's most responsible newspaper THE HINDU made a rational assessment on August 31: ".... Yet these problems make what has been achieved all the more remarkble. It is a tribute to ISRO’s mission management team that they could find ways to keep the spacecraft and its instruments operational for so long.... In the months and years ahead, data from the Indian probe will help scientists better understand the Moon’s origin and evolution, its mineral composition, and whether water might lie trapped in its permanently shadowed polar craters".
And sure enough, the prediction came true very soon, perhaps much sooner than even The Hindu had expected! For within a few weeks, towards the end of September 2009, the prestigious international magazine Science reported that NASA's instrument M3 (moon mineralogy mapper) had discovered the presence of water molecules on the moon.
Moreover, following extensive analysis of the data collected, it was reported in an international science congress in March 2010 that NASA's Mini-Sar (miniature synthetic aperture radar) had found extensive masses of ice in several huge polar craters with diameters ranging from two to fifteen kilometres.
What this meant, of course, was that there's a precious natural resource on the moon for the benefit of manned space missions, in the vital forms of drinking water (H2O), breathing air (oxygen), and rocket fuel (hydrogen). As a delighted Dr. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, declared: "Now we can say with a fair degree of confidence that a sustainable human presence on the Moon is possible.... The result.... seen in the last few months are totally revolutionizing our view of the Moon."
1 Dec. 2013
Destination Mars : Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, India!
Around this time three years ago, India, on its very first and highly successful lunar mission, had helped America to find conclusive evidence of the existence of water on the Moon. And now India has just taken off on its maiden mission to Mars!
I am copying below, for instant reference, a couple of relevant reports from today's exciting news, and also some significant comments I had made in Articulations Online in October 2010. This steady and spectacular scientific progress takes my mind back 30 years to the time when I was having a very close association with India's elite scientific community, and in particular to the following context:
The Prime Minister of India, as the ex-officio Chairman/Chairperson of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, presides over the annual meeting of the CSIR Society, which has many distinguished Indian scientists as members. This recurring intellectual get-together serves as a useful forum not only for obtaining a wide-angled perception of important specific issues concerning CSIR's affairs, but also for exchanging views on the direction and overall progress of science and technology in a national perspective.
In the Society meeting held in 1983, where I was present as CSIR's Financial Adviser, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said she had received a query from a very young child from a foreign country asking her what was India's most remarkable scientific achievement during the preceding year, and she was having some difficulty in giving an immediate and impressive answer. And she asked: would the scientific community please do some soul-searching?
I suppose Ms. Gandhi could have taken a far brighter view of things and shot off a confident reply: "Look, my child, you can't judge the scientific progress made by a country in one week or one month or even one year! India has made a lot of progress in many scientific fields in the last 25 years, including space science. Who knows, 25 years from now we may even be reaching the Moon!"
Which is precisely what we did in 2008! I wish I had been curious enough to have found out the identity of that adorably curious child; for I would love to trace and tell him or her that India is now a member of the still-exclusive Moon Club -- and, if all goes well with the ongoing space slingshot, is very likely to be admitted to the still-more-exclusive Mars Club by this time next year.
THE HINDU, 1 Dec. 2013
14-20 Indian Standard Time
India’s spacecraft to Mars has bid adieu to its Earth-bound orbit and is cruising in its sun-centric orbit. In a remarkably successful execution of a complex manoeuvre, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired the propulsion system on board the spacecraft for a prolonged duration of 23 minutes from 0049 hours on Sunday.
THE HINDU, 1 Dec. 2013
17-30 Indian Standard Time
India’s maiden mission to Mars left Earth’s orbit early on Sunday and successfully entered the second phase of its 10-month-long voyage to the Red Planet after performing a crucial manoeuvre described as “mother of all slingshots”.
Clearing a critical hurdle to achieve a major milestone in the country’s space history, ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft or ‘Mangalyaan’ was placed in the designated Mars Transfer Trajectory in a 22-minute manoeuvre almost an hour past midnight without any hitch to tear itself away from Earth’s gravitational pull.
It marked the first step of the Mars mission’s 680 million-km-long voyage to its destination to put on course the India’s first ever inter-planetary space odyssey.
12 Jan. 2014
India Joins Exclusive And Elusive Cryogenix Club
Just a few weeks ago India had successfully sent an internationally well-equipped space vehicle on its way to a Mars orbit which is expected to be achieved in a few months' time. And now comes the news that its long-term endeavour to develop a powerful entirely-made-in-India cryogenic spacecraft engine has also succeeded at last after overcoming several serious setbacks.
Are you watching, Indira Gandhi? (see Articulations Online, 1 Dec. 2013 : Destination Mars : Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, India!).
6 Jan. 2014
GSLV-D5 launch places India in elite league
One of India’s most ambitious dreams became a reality on Sunday when its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-D5), powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine, effortlessly put the 1,982-kg GSAT-14 communication satellite into a perfect orbit after 17 minutes of flight.
The cryogenic engine built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired for 12 of those 17 minutes.
The precision of the cryogenic upper stage was such that it put the GSAT-14 into an orbit with a perigee of 179 km, against the target of 180 km, and the apogee achieved was off by a mere 50 km for a target of 36,000 km.
The grand success caps 20 years of hard work by ISRO’s engineers, after being denied cryogenic technology under pressure from the U.S., suffering a heartbreaking failure with an indigenous cryogenic engine flight in April 2010 and having had to scrub its second attempt with an indigenous cryogenic engine in August 2013. . . .
The mission’s success means India now has the ability to put satellites weighing more than two tonnes in orbit, joining the elite club of the U.S., Russia, France, Japan and China who have mastered this perilous technology of using cryogenic propellants -- liquid oxygen at minus 183 degrees Celsius and liquid hydrogen at minus 253 degrees’ Celsius.
7 Jan. 2014
Resilience pays off
The Indian Space Research Organisation is adding feather after feather to its cap. Just recently, it sent off the country’s first effort at planetary exploration, the Mars Orbiter Mission. On Sunday, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), equipped with an indigenous cryogenic engine, put the GSAT-14 communication satellite into orbit with effortless ease.
It was an unequivocal demonstration of the space agency’s mastery of cryogenic technology, a key element in building more powerful launch vehicles. While its older sibling, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), can accommodate communication satellites weighing about 1,200 kg, the GSLV will be able to carry spacecraft that are heavier by around 1,000 kg. . .