India Reaches Mars With Low-Cost Mission

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft
An artist’s depiction shows NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft flying above Mars. NASA/Goddard

India’s new entrant into orbit around Mars, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), is a triumph for its  space agency and represents the fourth country to successfully send a spacecraft to the red planet. At a reported cost of $73 million, the mission is also a feat for lower cost exploration.

Launched on November 5, 2013, the MOM spacecraft reached Mars and fired its rocket engines for a little over 23 minutes to enter orbit beginning at 10:17 pm EDT on Tuesday (7:17 a.m.  Indian Standard Time on Wednesday). There it joins NASA’s $671 million MAVEN orbiter, which itself just arrived. (See: “With NASA Probe’s Arrival, International Mars Invasion Gets Under Way.”)

“The spacecraft is now circling Mars,” announced the Indian Space Research Organization in a statement on Wednesday. MOM will travel on an elongated, 72-hour orbit that swings as low as 261 miles (421 kilometers) and out to 47,841 miles (76,994 kilometers) above the red planet.

MOM bears five scientific instruments with devices to measure methane, atmospheric hydrogen, surface temperature, and atmospheric pressure, as well as a camera for scanning the Martian surface. Some are similar to instruments used on previous Indian lunar missions.

Cheaper Than Gravity

“It was an impressive engineering feat, and we welcome India to the family of nations studying another facet of the Red Planet,” said NASA chief Charles Bolden in a statement on MOM joining MAVEN at Mars. “We look forward to MOM adding to the knowledge the international community is gathering with the other spacecraft at Mars.”

He should be impressed—for the price, the Indian mission is hard to beat, even adding in the cost of the launch rocket, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle that costs around $15 million per launch. “India’s Recent Rocket Launch Cost Less Than the Film ‘Gravity,’ ” noted a headline in the July Business Insider that looked at a PSLV launch of four satellites.

For perspective on MOM’s $73 million price tag, here are some other notable Mars missions and their costs: 

—NASA’s Mariner 4 (1964), the first spacecraft to reach Mars, cost about $83.4 million.

—Viking missions (1975), which tested Mars for biological activity, cost about one billion dollars.

—Mars Pathfinder (1998), which carried the little Sojourner rover that revived interest in Mars, cost $254 million.

—Mars Science Laboratory (2009), which delivered the Curiosity rover now exploring a Martian mountain, cost $2.5 billion.

Not all the difference in price reflects cheap Indian launch costs. The big-ticket NASA missions mentioned above involved landing on Mars, and even the doughty Mars Pathfinder rover, which cost a little more than three times MOM, deposited a rover on a planet’s surface.

Some of the savings reflects spacecraft weight, which adds to rocket fuel costs: MOM weighed just 2,947 pounds (1,337 kilograms) at launch, according to ISRO. That’s still more than Mars Pathfinder, which weighed 1,973 pounds (895 kilograms), including a landing bubble that cradled the Sojourner rover.

But in general, more weight means better instruments and a more capable spacecraft. The Mars Science Laboratory mission spacecraft weighed 8,583 pounds (3,893 kilograms) at launch, for example.

“All space exploration expands the frontiers of scientific knowledge and improves life for everyone on Earth,” Bolden says. “We commend this significant milestone for India.”

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Changing Planet