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ISRO’s Mangalyaan Orbiter Completes Six Years Around Mars. Where’s the Science?

ISRO’s Mangalyaan Orbiter Completes Six Years Around Mars. Where’s the Science?

An artist’s illustration of the Mars Orbiter orbiting the red planet. Image: Nesnad/Wikimedia Commons.

September 24 marks six years since the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) Mangalyaan spacecraft – part of the Mars Orbiter Mission – entered into orbit around the red planet, making India the first Asian country to do so. Even more impressively, Mangalyaan was the country’s first interplanetary mission. Combined with the cost-effectiveness for which it is lauded, Mangalyaan is often hailed as India’s most successful space mission. But is it?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has boasted that at around $70 million, or Rs 450 crore, the mission was cheaper than the 2013 Hollywood film Gravity, and even an auto-rickshaw on a fare-per-kilometre basis. The media highlighted Mangalyaan’s cost effectiveness as well, noting that NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter to Mars, launched around the same time, had cost about seven-times as much.

India’s pride in the mission while downplaying others has continued to spread over the years, also taking the form of dramatised movies like Mission Mangal (2019). But what they all miss is looking at the scientific output. That is, what has Mangalyaan been doing in Mars orbit?

According to ISRO’s official list of publications, there have been only 27 peer-reviewed papers relating to Mangalyaan after six years in orbit. In contrast, MAVEN has helped produce many seminal scientific results about the Martian atmosphere, with a repository of at least 500 papers, and growing. What’s more concerning about Mangalyaan’s short publications list is that about half of these papers are simply engineering descriptions of the mission, not scientific results from the mission.

Naysayers may dismiss the lack of science by arguing that Mangalyaan was a ‘technology demonstration’ mission, aimed at proving ISRO’s interplanetary mission capabilities. That may be part of the story – but that is not how ISRO marketed the mission before and after launch, when it was vocal about the science goals.

ISRO has made data from Mangalyaan’s five indigenous scientific instruments available on their data portal for five years now, and has explicitly welcomed the Indian science community to utilise the data and publish papers. In 2017, the organisation announced at the mission’s dedicated science meet that 32 research teams across the country are exploring and analysing Mangalyaan data. And yet, there is a vacuum of scientific publications.

Perhaps the most notable ‘failure’ concerns the much-hyped methane sensor. The instrument was supposed to map the volume and distribution of methane around Mars with a sensitivity of a few parts per billion, to help decide if this gas on the planet could be a sign of subsurface life. But two years after launch, the instrument was found to have a design flaw and so it couldn’t detect methane at all. At that point, ISRO repurposed the methane sensor as an albedo mapper, which measures sunlight reflected from the surface to understand Mars’s surface composition.

There also seem to be no published results from the Lyman alpha photometer. By looking for hydrogen escaping from Mars’s atmosphere, it was supposed to tell us how much water Mars may have lost since its birth and at what rate. Notably, NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft was also expected to deliver this result (by examining a variety of factors) – and which it did.

Urge to be first

The idea of rationalising Mangalyaan’s poor scientific returns using the mission’s low cost is challenged by another ISRO mission: Chandrayaan 1. At Rs 390 crore, it was cost effective the way Mangalyaan was – and an equally challenging endeavour given that it was India’s first lunar orbiter.

Unlike Mangalyaan, however, Chandrayaan 1 welcomed global collaboration: about half the instruments came from foreign space agencies and universities. Notably, two NASA instruments confirmed the discovery of water on the Moon, cementing for Chandrayaan 1 an important place in history. And despite orbiting the Moon for less than a year, Chandrayaan 1 produced hundreds of publications and scientists are analysing its data to this day.

This is not to say ISRO can’t build good science instruments but to point out that collaboration can be an effective way to expand the scope of a mission’s scientific agenda without increasing the mission cost. For some reason, ISRO does not fly science instruments from universities and institutions within the country for its interplanetary missions. The only exception thus far was India’s first space telescope, Astrosat, whose instruments were selected by the consensus of academic institutions around India.

However, Astrosat was not directly concerned with planetary exploration; and ISRO operates differently when it comes to the latter. ISRO has expressed an intention to change this method in future, as part of its space commercialisation initiative, by involving private players and academic institutions to a greater extent.

Also read: Posters for Ekta Kapoor’s Mangalyaan Series Don’t Show ISRO Rockets – Why it Matters

Both the missing collaborations and lack of scientific output from Mangalyaan’s Indian instruments may have to do with the mission’s low development time, of only 18 months. It is unclear why ISRO was in such a hurry to launch in 2013 and couldn’t have targeted the launch opportunity in 2016 instead. The reason may be political – the urge to successfully orbit Mars before China or Japan does.

Had Mangalyaan been given enough time, it is possible the payload of scientific instruments wouldn’t have been restricted to weighing 15 kg in all, and the output could have been substantially higher. One case in point is the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter, currently in orbit around the Moon. It carries state-of-the-art instruments, all indigenous, and is making the highest-resolution map of the Moon (yet) and quantifying water on its poles as we speak.

Another way the Mangalyaan mission’s value could have been improved was if ISRO had equipped it with a standard relay device – one that every NASA Mars orbiter carries. These devices allow NASA to get more science data from surface missions than would be possible otherwise, by relaying data from instruments on the surface to Earth. The European Space Agency put one such device for NASA on their Trace Gas Orbiter, launched in 2016.

Missing space exploration roadmap

But more than the quality of the science instruments or mission-planning, Mangalyaan highlights the lack of an overarching philosophy guiding India’s interplanetary missions. NASA has an elaborate process called the ‘Decadal Survey’ for which scientists from across the US present a priority list of space exploration destinations and scientific objectives once every decade. NASA uses the survey as a guide to build its missions, so the system therefore guarantees that each mission’s scientific goals are achieved more often than not. China and the European Space Agency have similar processes in place for their missions.

Space exploration missions are inherently costly undertakings, and at this point, the value per rupee matters as much as the absolute cost, if not more. MAVEN highlights this adequately. The mission is part of NASA’s larger Mars exploration program and is built with the express purpose of studying Mars’s atmosphere and determining exactly how the red planet lost its water. Thanks to its clear objectives, MAVEN delivered big science while still costing NASA less than many of its other endeavours, even if it cost more than Mangalyaan.

Like NASA’s other missions, MAVEN’s findings feed directly into the agency’s next steps in Mars exploration and will help plan future habitats, further cementing the value-proposition of such a model. India could benefit immensely from a formal planetary exploration framework that either doesn’t exist or whose functioning is inept and unclear to the public.

ISRO plans to launch Mangalyaan 2 in 2024 with an upgraded orbiter, and with a scientific payload of 100 kg. The mission could also include a lander and a rover but it seems unlikely at the moment. Notably, Mangalyaan 2 will launch after the first Mars rover missions from China and the European Space Agency, and alongside NASA’s ever present Mars fleet. Let us hope Mangalyaan 2 is an appropriate step forward in this journey.

This article was originally published on Jatan Mehta’s blog and has been republished here with permission, with light edits for style.

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