Hail the Chief! Time to go to Mars
by Ramtanu Maitra on 08 Sep 2009 2 Comments

Addressing a day-long workshop of the Astronautical Society of India recently in New Delhi, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) chairman G. Madhavan Nair told newspersons that ISRO has begun preparations for a robotic mission to Mars. ISRO says such a mission may take place after 2015.

ISRO would use its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) to put the Mars satellite in orbit. The space agency, however, has not yet decided on the Mars craft engine. Electricity generated from solar panels - like other satellites - may not be a feasible option, some think. The space agency is currently working on options like the nuclear-powered propulsion or ion propulsion. India’s first satellite with an ion propulsion system is expected to be launched in a few months.

This spectacular news indicates that not only India’s space program is moving along at a fast pace, India is keen to keep pace with the leading Asian space-exploring nations, such as China and Japan. China is now in the process of preparing to launch its first satellite to probe Mars in collaboration with the Russian space agency. The launch will take place in Russia.

China and Japan to probe Mars as well

The 110-kilogramme Chinese satellite will be launched along with Russia’s “Phobos Explorer” aboard a Zenit rocket after final testing. After a 10-11 month long journey to Mars the Chinese orbiter will begin to probe the Martian space environment, seeking answers to the missing water that appeared to have flown in large quantities sometime in Mars’ long history, news reports indicate.

On the other hand, Japan launched a space probe in 1998 to study the atmosphere and moons of Mars, but abandoned the project, called Nozomi (Hope), in 2003 before the probe could reach the Mars space. The mission was abandoned and the probe was veered away at the last minute from crashing on to the Mars surface. Reports indicate the Japanese space probe experienced a problem with fuel consumption in its first year and its attempt to swing by the Earth’s orbit to gain momentum before travelling to Mars had failed. Later, Nozomi was damaged by an extensive solar flare in April 2002, which crippled some communications equipment and devices that manoeuvre the probe. It was Japan’s first inter-planetary mission, but it learnt a lot from its failure.

It should also be noted that Mars is known as a graveyard for spacecraft, referred to as “the death planet,” the “Bermuda Triangle” of the Solar System where spacecraft disappear. A total of 30 spacecraft have been sent there since the 1960s, but more than half of them lost their way, including the European Beagle 2 Lander, which has remained untraced.

Nonetheless, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan is presently going ahead with the planning to launch MELOS (acronym for “Mars Exploration with a Lander and Orbiters”), which will have two orbiters and one Lander. The Lander will carry several science packages: seismology package, geochemical package, meteorological package, etc. Scientific objectives as well as appropriate instruments have been under discussion. The launching of MELOS has been scheduled sometime in the latter part of the next decade.

ISRO’s plan to launch a Mars mission was by no means inspired by how fast either China or Japan was reaching the benchmark. Back in 2004, then President  and leading rocket scientist, APJ Abdul Kalam  had pointed out that the country’s moon mission can pave the way for a mission to Mars, which is likely to become a sought after planet for exploration of wealth and habitat in a few decades. “I am convinced that Mars will become a sought after planet for human exploration of wealth and habitat in a few decades,” President Abdul Kalam had said.

In 2007, a senior Indian journalist, Sudha Ramachandran, writing for Asia Times, reported Chairman Madhavan Nair saying ISRO was willing to launch a mission to Mars “if it gets a green light from the government.” “We can undertake a mission to Mars within five years of the government’s approval. If the project is given the go-ahead now, we will be in a position to launch the mission to the red planet by 2012,” Madhavan Nair had said. It is evident that New Delhi has shown the proverbial green light urging ISRO to move forward with the project.

Why Mars?

Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the landing on Moon, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin - the first and second men on the moon - and Michael Collins urged Americans to use the memory of the lunar landing 40 years ago as inspiration to prepare for a space journey to Mars. Aldrin said he wants to see a bold resumption of the US space exploration program, with Mars as the goal. “There may be life on Mars and if there is, it’s damn sure we ought to go there and look at it,” Aldrin said.

United States’ space agency, NASA, had begun exploring Mars in 2003 with the sending of two rovers - MER-A Spirit and MER-B Opportunity - to explore the Martian surface and geology. The rovers - the Spirit and Opportunity mobile geologists - are exploring different sites on opposite sides of the red planet, as the next step in NASA’s research effort to “follow the water” on Mars.

Once these probes are over and the world becomes more aware of Mars’ environment and geology, humans will likely journey to Mars. But long before that, the exploration of Mars is expected to provide humans with a better insight of the planetary system. For instance, for astro-biologists, Mars is the planet in our solar system that is most akin to Earth and according to many,  the planet most likely had  about 4 billion years ago a live biosphere. Therefore, one of the primary objectives of exploring Mars is to assess for humans its habitability. Mars is also the only other planet in our solar system where people imagine establishing a permanent human outpost.

Astrophysicists point out that a recent discovery by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft of large areas of magnetic materials on Mars indicates that the planet once had a magnetic field, much like Earth does today. Because magnetic fields in general act to shield planets from many forms of cosmic radiation, this discovery has important implications for the prospects of finding evidence of past life on the Martian surface, the scientists point out. Study of the ancient magnetic field also provides important information about the interior structure, temperature and composition of Mars in the past. The presence of magnetic fields also suggests that Mars was once a dynamic Earth-like planet than it is today.

Of equal importance is to get a better understanding of the age of Mars. Geologists use the age of rocks to determine the sequence of events in a planet’s history. Composition information tells them what happened over time. Particularly in the identification of rocks and minerals formed in the presence of water. Water is one of the keys to whether life might have started on Mars.

Besides water, what concerns the scientists the most is Martian dust. “Most scientists believe it’s not possible to evaluate bio-hazards without a sample return,” notes David Beaty, Mars Program Science Manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition, a sample return could resolve controversies about just how gritty or chemically toxic Martian soil may be. Even though lunar dust proved to be a major problem for the Apollo astronauts, “lunar dust does not equal Martian dust,” another scientist cautioned. Scientists and engineers simply need to get their hands on real Martian dirt. The significance of a sample even as small as 1 kilogram “should not be underestimated” for both its scientific and engineering value, Beaty adds.

India’s preparation

What is particularly heartening about the ISRO Chairman’s announcement is that it took place days after it became evident that India’s lunar probe mission, Chandrayaan-I came to an untimely end. Besides the fact that Chandrayaan-I had completed a large part of its mission, the difficulties that it posed, and the solutions that were worked out by mission control, is by itself a preparatory work for the next level space probe.

Madhavan Nair pointed out ISRO scientists have learnt a number of lessons from Chandrayaan-1 mission, particularly on thermal and redundancy management fronts. These lessons would result in improvements being made to systems in Chandrayaan-2. “I think we have got very valuable inputs on the heat radiation from the moon’s surface and so on. Accordingly, the thermal design of the future aircraft can be addressed,” Nair said. “Radiation is much beyond our expectations, so we will have to see how the radiation hardening has to be strengthened.”

Chandrayaan-I was working in tandem with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and they were within a few dozen kilometres of each other on Aug. 20. These two orbiters’ were brought close to each other because the scientists point out that two orbiters working in tandem would be able to pin down the presence of water on the Moon’s poles. If the moon’s poles hold water ice – a precious resource for future lunar explorers – orbiting spacecraft could spot it by bouncing radio waves off an upper layer of rock and ice, scientists point out. Catching the reflections with a second orbiter would produce a particularly clear signal if the ice is there, because ice reflections look much different from rock when viewed at an angle.

Each spacecraft made it to its planned position, but programming problems on the US Mini-SAR instrument aboard Chandrayaan-1 prevented the device from sending a radio pulse, says Jason Crusan of NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. Later analysis, however, showed that even if Mini-SAR had released the pulse, the signal would not have reached its target because Chandrayaan-1’s orientation was drifting more rapidly than anticipated, Crusan said. Chandrayaan-1 has been orienting itself using spinning gyroscopes and the sun since its star-tracking system failed earlier this year.

While there is no doubt that ISRO scientists will benefit greatly from the Chandrayaan-I experience, ISRO is also working in collaboration with the Russian space agency to complete the design of Chandrayaan-II, slated to India’s next probe of the lunar surface. To be conducted jointly with Russia, the mission will involve putting a Lander and a Rover on the lunar surface to collect and analyze samples of lunar soil, ISRO points out. “Right now, the design has been completed. We had a joint review with Russian scientists here,” Madhavan Nair told the media.

The proposed Chandrayaan-2 design will have an orbital flight vehicle constituting an Orbital Craft (OC) and a Lunar Craft (LC) that would carry a soft landing system up to Lunar Transfer Trajectory (LTT). ISRO will develop the orbiter, while Russia will design and construct the Lander and the Rover. Additional scientific payloads may be taken onboard from international contributor. The mission is scheduled to be launched sometime at the end of 2012.

Earth/Mars Comparison




Average Distance from Sun     

142 million miles                  

93 million miles

Average Speed Orbiting Sun

14.5 miles per second          

18.5 miles per second


4,220 miles                          

7,926 miles

Tilt of Axis                           

25 degrees                             

23.5 degrees

Length of Year                     

687 Earth Days                    

365.25 Days

Length of Day                      

24 hours 37 minutes                 

23 hours 56 minutes


0.375 that of Earth                  

2.66 times that of Mars


Average -81 degrees F               

Average 57 degrees F


Mostly carbon dioxide, some water vapour     

Nitrogen, oxygen, argon, others

Number of Moons            



The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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