MOM completes 100 days

MOM completes 100 days

Continued from “Red Alert! India Goes to Mars! – Part 1“….

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And these are only the physical requirements. You also need to figure out the path that the spacecraft must take from Earth to Mars. This is not just a matter of aiming the spacecraft in the general direction of the Red Planet. Like the Earth, Mars also revolves around the sun, so the challenge is to get one moving object (the spacecraft) away from another moving object (Earth) in such a way as to meet a third moving object (Mars) in the most efficient manner possible, through space that is so immense that there’s a very real chance that your spacecraft can get lost. So velocity is important (velocity is not the same as speed; it’s the speed at which something moves away from its original position in a particular direction), and so is timing. Neither can be off, everything must be completely precise.

And then MOM, as a mission, had its own particular challenge to face. The geometry of the sun, Earth and Mars is such that a mission like this can only take place once in 26 months — meaning that when financial approval came in August 2012 (two years after feasibility studies and consultations), the team at ISRO, led by its chairman, Dr K Radhakrishnan, had to make a decision. Their first opportunity to head to Mars would be in November 2013, the next in 2016 and the next after that in 2018. So which would it be? “At ISRO, we create our own schedules, no one dictates to us,” says Dr Radhakrishnan, who’s been an ISRO stalwart since he joined the organisation with a Bachelor’s Degree in engineering in 1971. “We chose 2013.”

That gave the team 15 months to conceive, design, create, test and launch this mission — a mission that is a first for everybody.

“This is not a simple operation,” says Robert, in what must be the understatement of the year. “We’re doing this for the first time, so there are many things to observe and correct. It’s a very close operation so there’s very little margin for error.”

“But we are ready for it,” adds B N Ramakrishna, deputy operations director, MOM, who, as a student, had been a huge fan of sci-fi films and always longed to work for ISRO. “Whatever we’ve dreamt, we have achieved.”

Why should MOM orbit Mars anyway? As the spacecraft zips across skies at the rate of 370 lakh km a day on its way to its rendezvous with the Red Planet, down here on Earth, India is struggling with enormous, scary problems. So why are we looking out there instead of in here? And what are we looking for anyway?

Well, the mission has two objectives. The first is to test and extend our own technological capabilities, because, as Dr Radhakrishnan says, Indian space research has never been static.

“Since the space programme took off 50 years ago (the first sounding rocket, carrying scientific instruments, flew up from Thumba, the spaceport near Thiruvananthapuram on November 21, 1963), we have advanced and had several turning points, including the lunar mission Chandrayaan, and now MOM,” he says.”The staging period of any space programme is long, so one needs to have a long-term plan that delivers technology that is contemporary even 20 years later. This provides clarity in the organisation. You always know what you’re doing next.”

The second objective of the mission is to extend our science knowledge — knowledge that once won, can be applied to situations in India, and may help us deal with our huge and scary problems. This was the objective of the Indian space programme from the start — the idea was not so much to aim for glory as it was to aim for solutions. “This vision that Dr Vikram Sarabhai (the founder of the Indian space programme) enunciated, has been stood by throughout the organisation and over time,” says Dr Radhakrishnan. “Our programme is application-centric and people-centric.”

So what are we looking for, science-wise? At this point, it’s just exploration, pure and simple. “Searching is part of the human condition,” says Dr M Annadurai, the man who was in charge of Chandrayaan-1 and now Chandrayaan-2 (the moon landing mission), and is also programme director of MOM.
“Exploration, search, be that internal or external, that is what makes us human. The universe of science is driven by questions and the mother of all questions is: who are we? And for that answer, we have to see what’s out there. If there once was life on Mars, why is there no life there now? If there is life only on Earth, why are we here?”

These are big questions that we never stop asking ourselves, but it’s unlikely we’ll get those answers in 16 months. Meanwhile, the MOM is carrying five payloads (payload being a fancy word for scientific equipment) that address some rather more specific concerns. First, there’s the Lyman Alpha Photometer, meant to help us understand why Mars lost its atmosphere. “It once had a thick atmosphere and water flowed, today it’s a cold desert with a very thin atmosphere,” explains BR Guruprasad, scientist and public relations officer at ISRO.

Second, the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser, meant to study the atmosphere.

Third, the Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer, meant to study the surface of the planet.

Fourth, the Methane Sensor for Mars, meant to show us if the methane on Mars has a geological source or a biological one. “If it’s biological, everyone will jump, because that means there once was life on Mars,” explains Guruprasad. And last but not least, the Mars Colour Camera, capable of taking pictures of the surface of the planet to help us study landforms that are the products of processes, which have been at work over years.

Naturally, none of these payloads can do much till MOM locks into the Mars orbit, but the camera was tested while MOM was orbiting Earth, sending back a picture of India shot from 68,000 km above sea level and transmitting patriotic emotions down here on Earth. The layman’s patriotism, however, is not quite the same as a scientist’s pride.

“All I can say is that I’m living my dream,” says S Arunan, project director of MOM, who credits the novels of PG Wodehouse, the late humour writer, with saving his sanity while he worked on the mission. “I read his books to de-stress, read them again and again,” he says. “I was slightly sceptical when we were given such a short time to realise the mission, but we conceived, designed, fabricated, tested and launched it, everything according to schedule and planned performance… I find real happiness in this, compared to previous missions. For MOM, we chose to play our genius!”

For Dr Annadurai, the achievement of MOM is all about confidence. When he made a presentation in Ahmedabad about the mission 15 months ago, he realised that among the audience was a project director from MAVEN, the US space agency NASA’s Mars mission also scheduled for November, 2013. “He was surprised. His mission was being tested as I spoke, but what I was showing the audience was only the drawing board,” says Dr Annadurai. “He thought I was joking. How could we possibly pull off such a mission with only one tenth of the money NASA was spending, within one fifth of their time frame — and for the first time ever at that! But now both missions are on their way to Mars.” But there’s no sense of rivalry with other space agencies, says Chandrashekar of ISTRAC. “We just want to get our mission right. We have a task to perform — that by itself is exciting,” he says. “You really don’t need a feeling of competition to motivate you. The adrenaline of excitement is more than enough.”

Following are the major objectives of the mission:

A. Technological Objectives:

  • Design and realisation of a Mars orbiter with a capability to survive and perform Earth-bound manoeuvres, cruise phase of 300 days, Mars orbit insertion / capture, and on-orbit phase around Mars.
  • Deep space communication, navigation, mission planning and management.
  • Incorporate autonomous features to handle contingency situations.

B. Scientific Objectives:

  • Exploration of Mars surface features, morphology, mineralogy and Martian atmosphere by indigenous scientific instruments.

Some of the scientists working on the Mars Orbiter Mission project are:

  • K. Radhakrishan – Chairman, ISRO
  • Mylswamy Annadurai – Programme Director, MOM
  • B. S. Chandrashekar – Director, ISTRAC
  • P. Robert – Operations Director, MOM
  • Subbiah Arunan – Project Director, MOM
  • V. Kesavaraju – Post-Launch Mission Director, MOM
  • B. N. Ramakrishna – Deputy Operations Director, MOM
  • P. Kunhikrishnan – Launch Mission Director, PSLV-XL
  • S. K. Shivkumar – Orbiting payload Director, ISAC
Piyush Rajput About the author