Opinion: From Mumbai to Mount Olympus: India takes aim at the Red Planet

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Already feeling the hubris of its still-unlaunched Chandrayaan I lunar probe, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is planning to land on Mars by 2012 or 2013. Says ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair: ‘Mars is emerging on our horizon. The [geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle] can take a payload to Mars and our Deep Space Network can track it all the way. There is a lot of interest in Mars, though the distances are large. The missions of the United States and the European Space Agency have given us some interesting data. Let us see what value addition our mission can bring.’

Let us indeed. ISRO promises it will use ‘powerful remote-sensing gadgets’ to explore the Valles Marineris, which Mars buffs recognize as the Red Planet’s Grand Canyon. (Fans of Ben Bova’s laconically titled Mars will also remember that the VM was the locus of life-on-Mars speculation in that book.) Some skepticism is in order: Mars is many orders of magnitude more difficult than the Moon—which the ISRO has also not reached yet—and the loose terms being thrown around indicate some complacency about how hard the chosen landing site is. My understanding is that NASA and the European Space Agency have stayed away from the otherwise very inviting Valles Marineris because, even by the never-promising standards of Martian landing sites, it is particularly difficult. The ESA, by comparison, chose the relatively safe Isidis Planitita for its Beagle 2 landing site, and still failed to land the craft safely. Landing on Mars is no picnic.

Nevertheless, this ambition should be cheered even by those who view space exploration through the grotesque lens of national competition and publicly funded space agencies. NASA is badly trailing the Russian space agency in revenue-generating ideas, and the agency needs to abandon its publicity-driven fondness for manned space travel—a wonderful idea, but one that should be left to people who are willing to put up their own money for it. The more rival agencies putting robot probes up on the next planet, the better.

Related: Mars Global Surveyor, R.I.P.