An artist’s impression of the Mars Orbiter Mission approaching the red planet. Image: ISRO
- When India’s Mangalyaan mission successfully entered Mars orbit in September 2014, it made ISRO only the fourth organisation in the world to achieve the feat.
- But since the mission ended on October 3, ISRO has repeatedly called Mangalyaan a “scientific” success – whereas the mission had very few scientific results.
- Mangalyaan was a technology demonstrator – from making things work with an unusually small launch vehicle to maturing planetary exploration technologies.
- Forcibly calling Mangalyaan something it wasn’t instils a false sense of scientific achievement and conditions us to have subpar expectations from future missions.
When India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft successfully entered Mars orbit on September 23, 2014, it made the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) only the fourth organisation in the world to achieve the feat, after NASA, the space agency of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the European Space Agency (ESA). The fact that the mission – also called ‘Mangalyaan’ – was India’s first interplanetary mission and cost just $70 million earned it even more international respect, while instilling a sense of pride among Indians.
But how much pride is too much pride? Here’s how ISRO officially described the Mangalyaan spacecraft’s end of life in an October 3 press release (emphasis added):
It was also discussed [at a national meet] that despite being designed for a life-span of six months as a technology demonstrator, the Mars Orbiter Mission has lived for about eight years in the Martian orbit with a gamut of significant scientific results on Mars as well as on the Solar corona, before losing communication with the ground station, as a result of a long eclipse in April 2022.
During the national meet, ISRO deliberated that the propellant must have been exhausted, and therefore, the desired attitude pointing could not be achieved for sustained power generation. It was declared that the spacecraft is non-recoverable, and attained its end-of-life. The mission will be ever-regarded as a remarkable technological and scientific feat in the history of planetary exploration.
Setting aside the fact that ISRO never officially communicated any efforts to keep the spacecraft alive, which is sadly not a widely expected trait from the publicly funded agency, ISRO can’t seem to stop calling Mangalyaan a “scientific” success. Mangalyaan has a huge vacuum of scientific results. As this author wrote two years ago (emphasis in the original):
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 those are simply engineering descriptions of the mission, not scientific results from the mission.
Perhaps the most notable failure concerns the much-hyped methane sensor. The instrument was supposed to globally map methane with a sensitivity of parts per billion, to help decide if the methane on Mars could be a sign of subsurface life. But two years after launch, the instrument was found to have a design flaw and so it can’t detect methane at all.
S.M. Ahmed, a former member of Chandrayaan 1’s Moon Impact Probe and then the principal scientific officer at the Central Instrumentation Facility, University of Hyderabad, and Anindya Sarkar, a professor of geology and head of the National Mass Spectrometry facility at IIT Kharagpur, contested this view. They wrote for The Wire Science that the number of scientific papers arising from MOM v. MAVEN operations couldn’t be compared in a “straightforward” manner.
… blame for this disappointment [i.e. the low number of papers] doesn’t deserve to be laid at ISRO’s feet. Instead, the issue lies with the sorry state of research in Indian universities. Many of these institutions are neither ready to undertake cutting-edge research in space science nor do their curricula include space science as a subject of study. In fact, more broadly, most universities have been too financially starved to be able to do research of any reasonable quality.
This author replied then. In short: For every ISRO mission, the trajectory is known first, before the payload. In other words, ISRO knew the path that MOM would take from Earth to Mars and then the shape of its orbit around Mars before finalising the instruments that would be onboard MOM. Yet many of the instruments were not designed for the elliptical orbit that MOM operated in, limiting the value of their scientific output. Another issue was that ISRO didn’t collaborate with foreign space agencies and universities – like the way it did for Chandrayaan 1 – for MOM. So blaming Indian universities for MOM’s stunted scientific output is not fair.
The bottomline is that Mangalyaan’s scientific output is low simply because it was never designed to be a scientific mission.
Mangalyaan was a technology demonstrator, and an amazing one at that – right from making things work with an unusually small launch vehicle to the planetary exploration technologies it helped develop for India. But forcibly calling it something more is not just wrong but dangerous. It instils, in a large population no less, a false sense of scientific achievement as well as conditions us to have subpar expectations from future missions.
Granted, it’s decidedly unfair to directly compare India’s nascent planetary efforts to mature endeavours undertaken by NASA or ESA. But our bar for scientific discovery can at least be our own Chandrayaan 1 or AstroSat, each of which for their own unique reasons have led to hundreds of published works in peer-reviewed international journals – well over an order of magnitude more than Mangalyaan.
Even initial science from the ongoing Chandrayaan 2 orbiter, while delayed, did make progress in some key, specific results – such as quantifying water on the Moon’s poles and the sunlit surface. Another example demonstrating the orbiter’s raw capacity is a recent result published in an international journal that concerns the amount of plasma in the Moon’s exosphere. This is a key characterising measurement never undertaken by any prior spacecraft.
ISRO shared another similarly vetted and unique result on the agency’s website on October 7, about the first global-scale sodium maps of the Moon. Such a steady stream of quality results has, sadly, simply never been the case with Mangalyaan.
Even though I remain optimistic and excited about India’s upcoming planetary missions, it ultimately rests on our crucial collective ability to not forget how to correctly measure progress. But also, while we do recognise and respect Mangalyaan’s success as a technology demonstrator, ISRO has no firm plans for a successor Mars mission for years to come.
The right way to honour Mangalyaan is to thrust its good forward and egress the rest.
Jatan Mehta is an independent, globally published science writer. He is passionate about exploration of space and humanity’s future in it, and the unique role of our Moon in both. His space blog and lunar exploration newsletter can be found at blog.jatan.space.
This article was first published on the author’s blog and was republished here with permission, with edits for clarity.