Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Mars Orbiter Spacecraft Control Center (Image: ISRO)
How cool is it that two spacecraft from Earth will reach Mars within two days of each other! NASA’s orbiter Maven is scheduled to reach Martian orbit on September 21 to be followed closely by India’s first interplanetary mission Mangalyaan two days or so later.
While Maven’s mission is to study Mars’s upper atmosphere, Mangalyaan’s predominant mission is as a technology demonstrator or, in other words,to show that the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) interplanetary systems work at all levels. Mangalyaan is also expected to carry out some study of the planet, including optical imaging and methane detection.
I don’t think people realize how remarkable this is as an achievement for space-faring nations to travel hundreds of millions of kilometers over a nearly ten-month period to precisely catch up with our planetary neighbor. Calculations about the launch of a mission to Mars–or for that matter anywhere in space– have to precise within seconds because of the complex planetary orbits.
Mars travels around the sun at about 13,000 miles per hour while Earth goes around at about 67,000 miles per hour. Space agencies launching satellites such as Maven and Mangalyaan have to make a lot of calculations before they manage to reach their destination.
It is hard to believe that a race– a species, really–that can do something so remarkable also has within its fold members who think nothing of beheading others. I feel personally embarrassed and hard-pressed to square accomplishments such as Mars missions with the bloody lunacy unleashed in the Middle East. It is highly disconcerting that two utterly irreconcilable kinds of human material can exist together on a single planet within just a few thousand miles of each other. But I digress.
If I were a Martian, the question “Are we alone?” would have been long answered with a resounding no with all these missions from Earth visiting the planet. We are still far from colonizing Mars but in some sense we are already in the early stages of it what with our robotic representatives such as NASA’s ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Curiosity’ rovers on its surface for a considerable length of time. Manned missions are still nowhere on the horizon but they could be closer than we might think. Apart from all the challenges of interplanetary travel, including exposure to solar radiation en route to Mars, there are factors like such missions being one way ticket to the planet. Those who might get picked up for such missions will obviously not be able to return to Earth because we have no capacity to launch from the Martian surface for a return journey. The travel time of nearly ten months may seem inordinately long but once you consider the magnitude of what is sought to be achieved, it may not seem all that formidable. For now, of course, we have to be content with a robotic proxy presence.