To Mars and beyond

Mars, as seen by India's Mangalyaan orbiter. [Credit: Indian Space Research Organization]
Mars, as seen by India’s Mangalyaan orbiter. [Credit: Indian Space Research Organization]
Last week, not one but two orbiters arrived at Mars: NASA’s MAVEN and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). These projects are very different in scope and purpose. MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) is a sophisticated chemistry lab packaged inside a space probe, designed to measure the composition of Mars’ atmosphere in hopes of understanding how it has changed in time. The Mars Orbiter Mission, nicknamed Mangalyaan (which means “Mars craft” in Sanskrit), is far less ambitious, with a set of cameras and an instrument for measuring methane. Mangalyaan’s primary purpose is to demonstrate that India is capable of sending scientific spacecraft to other planets. That’s not to say the MOM can’t do significant science, just that — like many early American and Soviet space probes — it’s more a forerunner of more sophisticated projects to come. And as you can see from the image above, it takes beautiful photos.

I spoke to the BBC Newsday program last week on the occasion of Mangalyaan’s successful arrival at Mars. Unfortunately, the clips don’t seem to be easily available from their website; I’m at the end of the segment at this link, but I haven’t found the other clip yet. (I have asked for permission to post my particular segments, but they haven’t gotten back to me yet.) What I emphasized is humanity’s ongoing interest in Mars exploration, including a description of MAVEN and why Mangalyaan is significant.[1]

But one thing I didn’t talk about was the value of inspiration. As I waited to see if the orbiter had successfully achieved “orbital insertion”,[2] I recalled other exciting moments of space exploration, going all the way back to my early childhood and earliest realization that these planets in photos are real worlds, very different than Earth. Since Voyager 2 was a major inspiration for young me, I thought: maybe children in India witnessing Mangalyaan will feel inspired to think about science, engineering, making great things for the good of all of us.

(I’m not allowed to design spacecraft because I’d probably program them all to mutter like the Space Core from Portal 2.)

Much has been made of the low cost of Mangalyaan, but as Pavan Srinath pointed out, the real cost is probably more than twice the reported amount. Like Srinath, I think the actual cost is less important than the general achievement, and it’s a mistake to think we could somehow build a probe like MAVEN for less than the price of a Hollywood movie (a comparison I saw several times last week). In an era when governments around the world tell us they can’t afford anything except war, the real lesson should be that we can achieve great things with sufficient will and ingenuity.

A lot of space exploration has been done in the name of nationalism, starting with the Cold War, but that’s always a mixed blessing. (Like Einstein, I tend to think of nationalism as the “measles of mankind”.) Whatever the motivation, though, these probes benefit all of us, because any scientific discoveries they make are shared with everyone. These robots are exploring other worlds on our behalf: Cassini studies Saturn and its moons, New Horizons will reach Pluto next year, and Mars now has seven craft exploring it. (Steve D. just published a great Treelobsters comic on that topic.) And come on, isn’t it time to go back to Uranus and Neptune?

What we learn is more than a set of disconnected facts: it’s a map and a history of the Solar System, the other parts of a cosmic story in which Earth is but one chapter. The immediate accomplishments may belong to India and the United States, but the true benefits will belong to all of us.


  1. I did say something dubious: I said India was the first nation to successfully reach Mars on the first attempt. While Mars has eaten more than its share of spacecraft from Earth, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission was its first attempt. However, since the ESA isn’t a nation, I suppose my statement is technically still correct, if misleading. (Mars Express also carried the Beagle 2 lander, which was lost during descent, so the entire mission is bittersweet.)
  2. Orbital insertion is a tricky maneuver in which a spacecraft must turn around and fire its thrusters to slow down. That lets the gravity of Mars (or whatever object) assert itself, capturing the craft into a stable orbit. Since a probe doesn’t use its engines during the travel between planets, there’s always the chance the various thrusters won’t wake up properly.
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