India’s low cost space missions come at a price

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), the most affordable Mars mission in the world, takes off abroad the PSLV C25 in 2014ISRO

  • India is lauded for bringing about cost-effective space exploration globally.
  • But, most of India’s missions, like Mangalyaan and the upcoming Gaganyaan, are technology demonstrators rather than long term voyages to collect data.
  • Bringing the Space Activities Bill to fruition to allow for private participation might be one way that India can plan for longer and more indulgent space missions.
India is globally touted for its cost effective space missions. Chandrayaan 2, for example, is revered for being cheaper than producing Avengers: Endgame. Mangalyaan is celebrated as the most affordable mission to Mars in the world.

But there’s a catch. Cutting down on costs for space exploration means that India is able to collect less data and its missions are quick.

"There are many factors. The entire cycle, the entire process of building a space mission is compromised," Chaitanya Giri, a fellow for space and ocean studies at Gateway House — a think tank focussing of India’s global relations — told Business Insider India.

Shorter timelines

"So, we’re not investing in these missions as long duration missions. So, if you look at the European Space Agency ( ESA), for instance, classifies its space missions into three categories — the S class, the M class and the L class (small, medium and large class)," explains Giri.

The National Aeronautics and Space Agency ( NASA) also classifies its missions from Class A to D depending on the priority of the mission, its national significance, the mission’s lifetime and how much it’s going to cost.

"For instance, there are a few American missions that have been going on for over a decade. And, that takes a lot of money," Giri adds.

In India, on the other hand, most of the projects have very short timelines. Mangalyaan was sanctioned and deployed within a span of two years. Gangayaan was announced in 2018 and has plans to get astronauts off the ground by 2021.

Even Chandrayaan 1, India’s mission to the moon that led to the discovery of water was announced in 2003 and launched by 2008. It was planned that the mission would operate for 2 years, but communication with the probe was lost after 10 months.

MAVEN vs MOM

The Mars Orbiter Mission, or Mangalyaan, was sanctioned in 2011 and launched a mere two years later in 2013 on a budget of $74 million. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, on the other hand, cost $671 million and launched a little later in 2013.

Explaining the difference between the Mars missions, Giri states, "MOM, when it was launched, was touted as a technology demonstrator mission. We had never gone to Mars before, so the prerogative was to reach there and take those sojourn of months and do some basic science. Secondly, we went there on a PSLV rocket. PSLV can only carry a spacecraft, that’s at most, 1.5 tonnes."

"And, if you look in comparison, the MAVEN was much heavier. MAVEN was laden a lot of diverse instruments and we were carrying only 5 instruments. So, we can’t really expect much science from those five instruments," Giri adds.

More money more power

India’s smaller budgets aren’t a matter of choice but necessity. ESA and NASA aren’t exclusively dependent on government spending — they nurture the private space industrial sector as well.

In India, private participation in what is largely considered to be ISRO’s domain, is absent. And, one of the things standing in the way is the Space Activities Bill.

"Space Activities Bill has not been discussed in the Parliament. The first version was tabled but it was never taken up. There needs to be some consensus within the space industrial sector in India. If there is unity among them, then things might proceed," says Giri.

The government is reportedly processing the bill to align its liabilities in outer space with international standards.

See also:
India's second moon mission Chandrayaan 2 that will cost ₹10 billion will break new records

India is spending $1.4 billion on a space trip and there are bigger plans involved

India forms a new space company to sell ISRO’s space technology products


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