India's Orbiter To Join NASA's Maven Around Mars — On A Shoestring
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
India is close to a rendezvous with Mars. If all goes well, the country's Mars space probe will reach the red planet's orbit midweek. A U.S. spacecraft already arrived there yesterday. Indian scientists tweeted their congratulations to NASA.
Their mission was never about beating the U.S. India's odyssey is happening on a shoestring budget - a fraction of NASA's. And as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, anticipation is building after a critical engine burn.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Sleepless scientists conferring at the space center in Bangalore passed a crucial dry run today. For four seconds they fired up an engine on the Mars orbiter that's been dormant in place for some 300 days. The moment of truth comes when Dr. A.S. Kiran Kumar, director of the Space Application Center, says they flip the switch for a much longer duration.
A.S. KIRAN KUMAR: Now it has to fire. So that is the tricky part.
MCCARTHY: Trickier still, he says, the orbiter must re-orient its trajectory to inject into the Martian orbit. Kumar says the engine will reverse thrust and slow the spacecraft to 2.5 miles per second or the probe will shoot past Mars and out into the solar system. The maneuver is slated for Wednesday, September 24, when Kumar says the craft is nearest to Mars.
KUMAR: That is when we are firing these engines to reduce its velocity. And with that reduced velocity, Mars' gravitational influence will be sufficient to bring the satellite into an elliptical orbit.
MCCARTHY: Adding to suspense, at that moment, Mars will cast a shadow over the spacecraft, blocking communication with ground control. The orbiter - the size of a small car - has traveled a 400-million-mile arc to Mars, but will conduct no exotic experiments. K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization - India's NASA - says the mission is more of a test to see if India can take a satellite all the way to Mars and circle the planet.
L. RADHAKRISHNAN: I would say 85 percent of the success is assigned to realization of this objective.
MCCARTHY: And, Radhakrishnan says, with that ambition, India's space program is about to do what only the space agencies of Russia, the U.S. and Europe have done.
RADHAKRISHNAN: We're taking a new direction. This is the first inter-planetary probe of India.
MCCARTHY: India went to Mars for around $70 million. That's less than it cost to make the $100 million space thriller "Gravity."
RODDAM NARASIMHA: And there are many Indians who would say, why are you spending so much money - $70 million is too much.
MCCARTHY: That's engineering professor Roddam Narasimha, the former head of the National Aerospace Lab. He says amortized over the life of the program, it cost each of India's 1.2 billion people about two cents a year, or the cost of a cup of roadside tea once every three years.
NARASIMHA: That is my argument to the Indians who say this is a waste of money. (Laughing).
MCCARTHY: The World Bank says more than a quarter of a billion Indians live on $1.25 a day. But Professor Narasimha says India can afford to explore deep space thanks to the improvisation of its scientists. Indians compressed their effort to build the Mars Orbiter into just 18 months. Narasimha says this phenomenon, known as Jugaad, plays out from India's slums to its scientific labs.
NARASIMHA: Frugal innovation - it means that you want to get the most out of the money you put in. And you have to be very clever about it. You think about it. You fix it, make it work and get something out of it. It goes on all the time.
MCCARTHY: India has become a low-cost alternative for launching satellites. The Indian Space Research Organization sent five foreign satellites into orbit in May. But aerospace engineer Narasimha says India does not fantasize about competing with economically advanced countries. Its gaze is more inward. He quotes the founders of India's space agency, who said it's necessary to develop competence in advanced technologies and to...
NARASIMHA: ...Deploy them for the solution of our own particular problems - to leapfrog from the state of backwardness and poverty - that was a key.
MCCARTHY: India has a constellation of satellites working for the national benefit. Its weather satellites now save tens of thousands of lives. Others remotely sense water resources, study the oceans and improve communications. India's Space Program director, Radhakrishnan, says...
RADHAKRISHNAN: ...Satellites have become part and parcel of the life of every Indian. And, we say here, it touches his life.
MCCARTHY: India's orbiter around Mars will study the presence of methane, looking for clues to former life on the red planet. A successful mission would mean India is the first Asian nation to reach Mars and, scientists hope, whet the appetite of a young generation to explore space. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.