The COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Mars launch window were simultaneous events. A ‘launch window’ is a brief period when the position of Mars and Earth in the solar system is such that spacecraft bound for Mars can reach the planet in the shortest 6-7 months travel duration. Such windows occur only once in two or three years, making it necessary for countries to schedule missions accordingly. The US, UAE and China did not let the pandemic affect their Mars-bound missions. Their Perseverance, Hope and Tianwen-1, respectively, flew to Mars during the 2020 launch window and reached their destination this February. But more significant is that this launch window saw a free-market democracy, a monarchy and a communist state each send a robotic envoy to Mars for the first time.
The pursuit of the ‘red planet’ by each of these governance models has implications.
Over the years, the US has given the cause of Martian exploration much global publicity with its frequent missions to the planet. Scientific research has played a major role in the design and execution of these missions. However, with more countries joining in, the long underplayed techno-economic aspects of Mars exploration are coming to the fore. Take, for instance, the ambition of a newbie space- exploring nation like the UAE to build a city on Mars by the year 2117, using additive manufacturing or 3D printing technologies. This aim is part of the UAE’s National Mars 2117 Strategy and its other goal of becoming a global hub for 3D printing technology. China, too, is preparing to dominate the cislunar space by establishing an Earth-Moon special economic zone. The US, the world’s pre-eminent Mars explorer, has a slew of private-sector space technology contractors and innovation companies raring to set up transportation and communications infrastructure between Earth and Mars for connectivity between the two planets. Clearly, Mars exploration is increasingly becoming an economics-driven scientific pursuit more than the pure science-driven quest it has been.
Where is India placed in this pursuit? The Indian space programme did not prioritize the exploration of Mars for a while. Scientists have had to fight an ideological bind that tended to give toilet-building greater priority than space exploration. Everyone knows now that both are necessary and a choice need not be made. Unfortunately, even when India embarked on exploration of the Moon and Mars in 2003, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) restricted it to a science-driven pursuit. So the output of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission has been limited to a few scientific research papers, some earnings for industry contractors, and a fillip to India’s international perception management. Even with its proposed second Mars mission, scheduled around the 2026 launch window, ISRO is content orbiting Mars without landing a rover on it, the way the Chinese have attempted with Tianwen-1. China’s goal is clear. It wants to be among the earliest nations to set a human footprint on Mars by 2050 and maximize the accrual of economic benefits from its pursuit of long-duration human presence on that planet.
India’s space reforms of May 2020 are an attempt to correct course. In particular, the private sector now has the freedom to explore planets. This will turn India towards an economics-driven scientific pursuit of space exploration. But much more reform is needed to ensure success. For instance, the announcements or proposed planetary missions on ISRO’s portal are highly restrictive in terms of participation. They are limited to ISRO and the department of space laboratories, and sometimes public universities. They should welcome innovative companies and startups that have insights into and knowledge of payload building and the commercialization of data-sets generated by Mars exploration.
As Mars now becomes populated with landers, rovers, drones and orbiters, the data generated by their geological, atmospheric, geochemical, hydrological and geophysical probes will have significant commercial value. These data-sets will find buyers among entities that want to build research stations, micro-manufacturing units, perhaps even cities and launch pads on Mars to reach the outer solar system. These data-sets will be necessary for any human habitation of the red planet. An economics-driven scientific Mars exploration project can attract financing from public and private markets, freeing planetary exploration from the bureaucratic and political partisanship of successive governments, a problem that persists till this day.
ISRO carried out its Mars Orbiter Mission on a shoestring budget of ₹450 crore. Engaging the private sector can possibly lower the cost further. India’s space innovation ecosystem is teeming with startups and innovative companies, but most of them are currently in what venture capitalists call the ‘valley of death’ phase, the period in a new firm’s lifecycle which has operations underway but profits are yet to be generated. Their future depends on creating commercial value from all types of space activity, including exploration.
The Space Commission, India’s main body for space strategy formulation, should increase the frequency of its exploratory missions. ISRO is sorely short of talent that can work simultaneously on Venus, Moon, Mars, asteroid and comet missions. However, a vast pool of talent beyond the gates of ISRO can. The onus is on the Narendra Modi administration to push further with the reforms it initiated. Commercializing planetary exploration must be a national priority.
Dr. Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.
This article first appeared in Mint.