If you reside in any major city in India, a ride in a three-wheeler taxi to Mars would cost you $33 million more than the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) expended to dispatch a spacecraft to the same destination. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also called Mangalyaan, cost only $74 million, about $25 million less than the Hollywood film Gravity, making it the most economical successful interplanetary mission in history. Significantly, India is also the first country to have succeeded in its maiden attempt at a mission to Mars.
Mangalyaan is a prime example of frugal innovation and is mainly a technology demonstration mission. In addition, it is a scientific endeavor meant to complement the observations of probes launched by other space agencies. The MOM is to measure the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere for scientists to deduce the history of Mars’ atmosphere. Other surface imaging and measurements will also be carried out.
To conduct these measurements, MOM was fitted with five instruments, bringing its payload mass to only 15kgs. This reduced the scientific capability of the probe, but ensured the successful launch of the spacecraft. ISRO was initially supposed to use its new Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) to launch MOM. But subsequently, the less powerful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was used, requiring the probe to be lighter. This meant it would have a smaller payload, and cost lesser. This is unlike NASA’s Mars’ mission, MAVEN, which has a payload mass of 65 kgs and higher scientific capability and cost of development.
ISRO approached the planning, development and operations of this mission using a modular approach. After the earlier success of the lunar orbiter Chandrayaan -1, ISRO undertook a feasibility study for MOM. Subsequently, Mangalyaan was built with the same core structure and systems as the lunar orbiter, allowing ISRO to save on time and money. ISRO also prioritized home-grown materials and innovative technology over foreign imports and kept the design simple, allowing for a smaller margin for error. Instead of launching MOM directly into the Trans-Martian trajectory, it was first launched into Earth’s orbit, after which it used gravity and its own propulsion systems to enter the Mars’ orbit. This made the launch more fuel and cost efficient.
The success of MOM has also propelled the development of a second mission with a higher payload that will be launched in the next three years. Tweets and pictures exchanged between MOM, NASA’s Curiosity Rover and ESA’s Rosetta are being used to circulate the scientific observations collected across the globe. It has also encouraged developing countries to expand on their space capabilities, while proving that large budgets and foreign materials are not the only solutions.
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