Why India's Mars mission is so cheap - and thrilling

MOM Image copyright AP
Image caption Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is one of the cheapest interplanetary missions ever undertaken

India's space programme has succeeded at the first attempt where others have failed - by sending an operational mission to Mars.

The Mangalyaan satellite was confirmed to be in orbit shortly after 0800, Indian time. It is, without doubt, a considerable achievement.

This is a mission that has been budgeted at 4.5bn rupees ($74m), which, by Western standards, is staggeringly cheap.

The American Maven orbiter that arrived at the Red Planet on Monday is costing almost 10 times as much.

Back in June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi even quipped that India's real-life Martian adventure was costing less than the make-believe Hollywood film Gravity.

Even Bollywood sci-fi movies like Ra.One cost a good chunk of what it has taken to get Mangalyaan to Mars.

India's Mars orbiter

$74m

Cost of India's Mangalyaan mission

$671m

Cost of Nasa's Maven Mars mission

  • Launched on 5 Nov 2013

  • Weighs 1,350kg

  • Closest point to Mars 366km

MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP

So how has India done it? For sure, people costs are less in this populous nation, and the scientists and engineers working on any space mission are always the largest part of the ticket price.

Home-grown components and technologies have also been prioritised over expensive foreign imports.

But, in addition, India has been careful to do things simply.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Narendra Modi said the country had achieved the "near impossible"

"They've kept it small. The payload weighs only about 15kg. Compare that with the complexity in the payload in Maven and that will explain a lot about the cost," says Britain's Prof Andrew Coates, who will be a principal investigator on Europe's Mars rover in 2018.

"Of course, that reduced complexity suggests it won't be as scientifically capable, but India has been smart in targeting some really important areas that will complement what others are doing."

Mangalyaan has gone equipped with an instrument that will try to measure methane in the atmosphere.

This is one of the hottest topics in Mars research right now, following previous, tantalising observations of the gas.

Earth's atmosphere contains billions of tonnes of methane, the vast majority of it coming from microbes, such as the organisms found in the digestive tracts of animals.

The speculation has been that some methane-producing bugs, or methanogens, could perhaps exist on Mars if they lived underground, away from the planet's harsh surface conditions.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mangalyaan will measure methane in the Martian atmosphere - a crucial question

It is a fascinating prospect.

So, even though Mangalyaan has a small payload, it will actually address some of the biggest questions at the Red Planet.

Western scientists are excited also to have the Indian probe on station.

Its measurements of other atmospheric components will dovetail very nicely with Maven and the observations being made by Europe's Mars Express. "It means we'll be getting three-point measurements, which is tremendous," says Prof Coates.

This will enable researchers to better understand how the planet lost the bulk of its atmosphere billions of years ago, and determine what sort of climate it could once have had, and whether or not it was conducive to life.

I have read a lot about the criticism of Mangalyaan and India's space programme.

There's an assumption among many, I guess, that space activity is somehow a plaything best left to wealthy industrial countries; that it can have no value to developing nations.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Students in Chennai saluted the country's space scientists

The money would be better spent on healthcare and improved sanitation, so the argument goes.

But what this position often overlooks is that investment in science and technology builds capability and capacity, and develops the sort of people who benefit the economy and society more widely.

Space activity is also a wealth generator. Some of the stuff we do up there pays for stuff down here.

The industrialised nations know it; that's one of the reasons they invest so heavily in space activity.

Consider just the UK. It has dramatically increased its spending on space in recent years.

The government has even identified satellites as being one of the "eight great technologies" that can help rebalance the UK economy and drive it forward.

India wants a part of this action, too, and in Mangalyaan and its other satellite and rocket programmes, the nation is putting itself into a strong position in international markets for space products and services.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Science and technology build capability and capacity, and inspires the next generation

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