ISRO’s successful mission control room. Photo: EPA
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Billion people hold their breath as India becomes the first Asian country to reach Mars

Mars has become the destination of choice for ambitious space agencies and nations. Now India is among that group.

After a successful manoeuvre the Mars Orbiter Mission (informally called Mangalyaan, which is Hindi for Mars vehicle) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has entered an orbit about 420km above the surface of Mars. It will soon begin to photograph the planet’s surface and analyse the atmospheric composition.

As a member of two previous missions to Mars, I understand the excitement and challenges of landing, or in the case of Mangalyaan, orbital insertion. Waiting for a signal telling the ground staff about the mission’s fate must have been a nerve-wracking time for Indians.

Attraction of the red planet
Ever since the earliest telescopic observations in the 17th and 18th centuries, Mars has shown tantalising hints of seasons, water and active geological processes. Over the centuries our understanding about Mars has changed as the resolution of telescopes and spacecraft cameras and spectrometers have greatly improved.

Today as a result of the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter we know that the red planet once had thick mudstones deposited in large lakes. Drilling by Curiosity has shown us that red colour of Mars – the result of iron reacting with oxygen – is only “skin deep”. Underneath that thin layer of red is a very different planet. This well-preserved history may even hold clues to the presence of microbial life on Mars.The Conversation

This is one reason why Mangalayaan and the American MAVEN mission, that entered orbit on September 21, are exciting. They will both be looking for the presence of methane, which could inject fresh energy into the debate of life on Mars. Future rover missions, such as the European Space Agency’s ExoMars or US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mars2020, with new specialised instrumentation, may provide a definitive answer.

Faster, cheaper, better
ISRO’s achievement is special for other reasons, too. Not just is it the first Asian country to reach Mars, but it is also world’s cheapest mission to reach Mars. Other aspiring space agencies will have been watching, and they will want to learn soon.

Circling the red planet. Image: Nesnad, CC-BY

At an advertised cost of US$72m, it is a small fraction of the cost of the US$671m MAVEN mission. A part of the reason for the frugality is the cost of instruments. Although the underlying lure of Mars is scientific, Mangalyaan is primarily a technology demonstration. Its camera, for instance, will not match that of other Martian probes. Similarly it will not match MAVEN’s ability to measure the rate at which certain chemicals are lost from Mars' atmosphere.

But the instruments on a space mission, such as those on the planned European rover ExoMars or Curiosity, cost about 10% of the overall mission cost. So, even if that is factored in, Mangalayaan’s shoe-string budget remains striking.

The biggest cost saving for Mangalyaan came from using ISRO’s existing telecommunications satellite launcher, called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Although it couldn’t carry a heavier payload, it was able to push Mangalayaan on the way to Mars for a fraction of the cost. This success will appeal to future commercial users of the ISRO’s launch services. Countries as diverse as Algeria and Israel, or Singapore and Switzerland, have been served by ISRO’s commercial arm. With Mangalayaan’s success, more are sure to follow.

John Bridges receives funding from UKSA and STFC.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood