EDL Challenges with India’s Mangalyaan-2 Mission – Part I
By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
This is the first article in a two-part series discussing the India Space Research Organization’s (ISRO’s) Mangalyaan-2 mission
The India Space Research Organization (ISRO) is a fledgling national space agency compared with its older counterparts in the United States, Russia, and Europe. However, it is quickly making a name for itself in space research and has set an ambitious agenda for future space exploration missions. One key target for such research is Mars.
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The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan, was the key ISRO mission. India launched the Mangalyaan mission from its space launch facility in November of 2013. By the following September, the probe was successfully orbiting Mars. In doing so, India achieved several milestones.
First, although ISRO was the fourth national space agency to send a mission to Mars, it was actually the first to do it successfully and on the first attempt. Also, the cost of the Mangalyaan mission was just $73 million. Compared with other Mars missions — such as the billion-dollar rovers NASA sends to the red planet — the Mangalyaan mission was extremely cheap. In fact, so far Mangalyaan is the least expensive Mars mission ever.
Mangalyaan Mission Sought to Show that India’s Space Research Was Reliable and Effective
The Mangalyaan mission was primarily a proof-of-concept demonstration to show that India’s space research technology was reliable and effective. However, the probe was also equipped with five scientific instruments to explore the Martian atmosphere, topography, mineralogy, and morphology.
The Lyman-Alpha Photometer (LAP) was used to measure the amount of deuterium and hydrogen in Mars’s upper atmosphere so that scientists could better understand how much water Mars loses to space.
A second instrument was the Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM). Because methane is produced by microbial life on Earth, the MSM was designed to probe whether Mars could potentially be home to a microbiome. However, due to a design flaw, the instrument was unable to measure methane.
Another instrument was the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer (MENCA), designed to study the composition of different areas of Mars from orbit.
The Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS) was the fourth instrument. It was used to measure the temperatures and mineralogy of various parts of the Martian topography.
The fifth instrument was the Mars Colour Camera (MCC). It captured high-resolution images to study the features and composition of the Martian surface. The MCC photographed the entire Martian surface over its many orbits.
Now, India is setting its sights on a sequel to its first Mars mission with the Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (MOM2), or Mangalyaan-2. Many of the details of Mangalyaan-2 are still uncertain, as the mission is not slated to launch until 2022 at the earliest. But we know that it will consist of an orbiter similar to its predecessor. And it’s probably safe to assume that the orbiter will host a number of scientific instruments just as the original Mangalyaan did. However, the key difference with this second mission is that the Indian government is apparently considering adding lander and rover components.
Adding a Landing Component Will Increase the Number and Degree of Challenges
If ISRO decides to add a landing component, this will significantly increase the number and degree of challenges associated with the mission. Sending a spacecraft into a stable orbit around Mars is becoming fairly routine for space agencies these days. So, as long as the launch goes off without a hitch, the rest of the flight is usually quiet and uneventful.
However, landing on Mars requires addressing significant obstacles that have ended countless missions. Russia, China, Europe, and even the United States have all lost spacecraft, either during entry and landing on Mars, or shortly thereafter. So if India is to be successful with a lander and/or rover aboard Mangalyaan-2, it will need to address the major challenges of entry, descent, and landing (EDL) on the Martian surface.
One of the biggest problems with landing on Mars is the atmosphere or lack thereof. Mars’s atmosphere is only about one percent of the density of Earth’s; this presents a double-edged sword of obstacles for spacecraft.
Spacecraft Entering Earth’s Atmosphere Experience Significant Aerodynamic Drag
When spacecraft enter Earth’s atmosphere, they experience significant aerodynamic drag, so much so, in fact, that their heat shields glow red hot. Over time, these spacecraft lose most of their speed to the drag from the atmosphere, enough that spaceplanes like the space shuttle can simply land on a runway when they reach the surface.
However, it’s not so easy on Mars. Indeed, the red planet has enough of an atmosphere that a spacecraft does experience some drag. That drag is substantial enough to cause significant heating, requiring heat shield protection like spacecraft entering Earth’s atmosphere. But the difference is that Mars’s atmosphere is not dense enough to slow a spacecraft to a reasonable descent speed. After experiencing aerodynamic drag, a spacecraft landing on Mars will still be traveling at about 1,000 mph. So additional methods of deceleration, including parachutes and retrorockets, will be needed to reach the surface safely.
Mars Is Covered in a Layer of Fine Dust, Thicker in Some Places than in Others
Dust is another issue that presents itself when landing on Mars. Nearly the entire planet is covered in a layer of fine dust, thicker in some places than in others. Dust can be a major problem for robotic landers and rovers because it can compromise the integrity of onboard electronics and hinder the efficiency of solar panels that may be used for power. So however ISRO intends to land a Mangalyaan-2 mission component on the Martian surface, it will need to do so in a way that does not kick up a large amount of dust, which would inevitably settle back down on top of the lander or rover.
Fortunately, however, there are a few examples from NASA’s history that ISRO could use to inform its mission design to overcome these EDL obstacles.
In the second part of this article, we’ll look at the example the Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity rover landings, as well as other space missions.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.