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.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.