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Should India lead the way and set up a colony on the moon or focus on Mars instead?

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Ahead of ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 launch later this year, and the planning for Mangalyaan 2 mission underway, there is global talk on going back to the moon. ISRO’s budding planetary exploration programme’s budget might eventually have to prioritise one over the other. What offers more? 

ThePrint asks: Should India lead the way and set up a colony on the moon or focus on Mars instead?

Taxpayers would invest in long-term space tech when current tech shows societal benefit

Rachana Reddy
Space engineer and previously worked with Indian space programme

As much as I often dream of watching Earth-rise from a lunar colony or hiking in the Valles Marineris, I believe India should, in the short-term, focus on maximising the social potential of its already existing space technology know-how before investing into space exploration.

ISRO had indeed taken up a multitude of initiatives towards social development even with its limited budget of $1.4 billion that accounts for only 0.05 per cent of the country’s GDP.

However, the impact of these programmes is disappointingly meagre. For instance, the 5 lakh users of ISRO’s village resource centres account for only 0.19 per cent of the 26.93 crore poor people in the country. Similarly, its telemedicine network covers about 384 hospitals which form about 1 per cent of the country’s 35,416 government hospitals.

The same pattern follows most other national missions involving space technology tools.

In spite of participation from several local administrative bodies, NGOs and trusts, these decades-old programmes desperately need innovation so as to scale and integrate with modern-day resources and complementary technologies.

In the long-term, India can always leapfrog its way into Martian colonies by skipping the lunar stepping stone. But this leapfrogging capability requires a certain technological readiness, which need not be pursued exclusively by ISRO or other publicly funded research labs.

The government should actively encourage the domestic industry to pursue high technology areas such as wireless laser communication, satellite miniaturisation, swarm robotics, among others, which form the building blocks of tomorrow’s human expansion into outer space.

Moreover, the taxpayer would be willing to invest substantial public money towards long-term space technology efforts only when the current technological prowess is fully exploited for societal benefit with supporting metrics of performance that outperform investment by the taxpayer.

Most Mars missions ended in disaster, moon explorations have been more successful

Paul M. Sutter 
Astrophysicist, Ohio State University and chief scientist, COSI Science Center

What works in moon’s favour is that it’s far closer than the red planet. While most of the energy used in space travel is expended in the launch from Earth itself, the moon makes for far quicker missions, enabling more frequent research and resupply.

However, despite its distance, Mars is a very tempting target. It is much more massive than the moon, providing stronger gravity for any visiting human. This might prove essential for long-term missions because the effects of the moon’s low gravity on humans are not fully understood. As an added bonus, Mars has abundant (frozen) water just under the surface, and its thin carbon dioxide atmosphere can be used to generate sufficient rocket fuel for the return to Earth.

But around half of all the missions to Mars have ended in disaster, while we have far more experience – and success – in exploring the moon.

In the end, a nation and its space programme must decide what they want: a closer target with more opportunities to build a robust presence, or a farther target with more risk but potentially more rewarding. Or, skip them both and go where nobody else would, the asteroid belt.

Settling on Mars is much better, with a military base on moon

Anjali Doney Varghese
Physicist turned data scientist and has worked at ISRO

The colonisation of the solar system is bound to trigger the next space race, the dynamics of which will ultimately decide whether we occupy Mars or moon or Titan. But assuming ideal conditions of a cooperative world, where only scientific feasibility matters, the main factors to consider are habitability and logistics.

Mars is a great fit for an Earth-like ecosystem, primarily because of its comparable gravity. Not only will our bodies function normally in Martian gravity, it also helps retain the atmosphere, which in turn regulates the temperature.

Besides, Mars rotates at a rate similar to Earth, whereas a day on the moon would be a month. The planet is in general more amenable to terraforming thanks to the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere and water in its soil.

So, Mars wins in terms of habitability — except for one little, lurking threat.

We are clueless about the kind and extent of viruses, bacteria and other microscopic life on Mars. With Curiosity’s recent find of organic matter, it seems more likely than ever that what happened to native Americans when the European settlers arrived could happen to us. Even so, diseases may be easier to deal with than the moon’s weak gravity and nil atmosphere.

Now, the obvious advantage of the moon is its proximity to Earth. However, the cost of making it habitable outweighs the logistical gain, and is hard to estimate, considering some of the technology has not even been invented.

On the other hand, the costs and risks involved in covering the distance to Mars are finite and will decrease with improved technology and joint efforts.

Sure, India should set up some kind of military base on the moon, but the best bet for civilisation would be a unified, global attempt to expand to Mars.

Moon base should be the launch pad for exploration of solar system

Abhijeet Borkar
Postdoctoral researcher, Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Although everyone is preoccupied with going to Mars and setting up colonies, I believe the moon still offers the best option for the first settlement outside Earth.

Going to the moon has several distinct advantages. First, the moon is a thousand times closer to us compared to Mars, which is about 250 million km away. The per-trip cost to the moon will be cheaper. A trip to Mars takes about eight months while you can go to the moon in just three days. Any Mars-bound spaceship will need long-term supplies, food, water, and radiation exposure for the crew, making it expensive. The cargo resupplies to the moon and rescue operations, in case of emergencies, would be faster, cheaper and easier.

The thin atmosphere of Mars also makes it difficult for landing while lunar landing is comparatively easier and has been performed multiple times by NASA. Lunar gravity is only 16 per cent of the Earth’s, which may cause long-term health problems for the crew, while Mars, with 40 per cent gravity, may be easier to adapt to. In both cases, the gravity is low enough that it will require extensive training and medical research to keep the crew healthy.

The moon base will be a good experience and a launch pad for further exploration of the solar system. Mars may provide greener pastures in the far future, but the moon base must come before the Mars settlement.

Mars gives India better opportunity for international collaboration

Sandhya Ramesh, 
Sr. Asst Editor, Science, ThePrint

Going to the moon might have its advantages, both military as well as scientific. For instance, setting up a moon-based telescope can help in observation without atmospheric distortion. But the returns on investment are just a tiny fraction of what we could achieve with the exploration of Mars.

Considering that not just ISRO’s but also the entire world’s space programmes are just taking baby steps, it is imperative to factor in return on investment. Humanity has explored the moon to a sufficient extent to justify the amount of money put in. Mars offers brand new opportunities in basic fields of geology, biology, chemistry, and also further advances the level of science education in India.

There would be more opportunities for world-class research for Indian universities in conjunction with ISRO on Mars. It can open up new avenues of development in the areas of spaceflight, which in turn can bring in a lot of newer technologies that may help advance medicine and other areas.

Space exploration has always been about teamwork. When Mangalyaan flew to Mars, it was helped by NASA’s Deep Space Network. When NASA’s Phoenix couldn’t communicate with earth, European Space Agency’s orbiting Mars Express helped it. On an unfamiliar, exciting ground, such inter-agency collaboration offers advantages to not just our science but also to international relations here on Earth.

India’s space programme is special, but far behind the EU’s or the US’. The fact that they also have craft on Mars could work very well to India’s advantage in terms of support. Focusing our efforts on Mars gives a better opportunity for India to carve a spot in the history of humanity.

Compiled by Sandhya Ramesh 

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  1. I think we should first focus on well being of people in India itself.
    There is poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, electrification of remote places which should be catered to first, rather than colonising on Mars or Moon. First look at what we have and make our country self sufficient then think of setting up colony elsewhere.

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