First light images from Mars by MOM: Close up of the surface (left), and the limb of Mars showing its atmosphere (right). Photo credit: ISRO

Oct 4, 2014 The cost of Mars

Sen—Mars recently got two new moons.

Artificial moons, that is. One was NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN spacecraft (MAVEN), and the other India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, which c’mon, is a great acronym). Remarkably, they both achieved Mars orbit within a few days of each other, an incredible feat. Getting to Mars is hard, and not very many nations have managed to do it.

It’s also expensive. It takes a lot of hardware, infrastructure, and people-hours to design, build, launch, maintain, and then put a spacecraft into orbit or land on another planet. The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, for example, together have cost roughly a billion dollars (NASA’s annual budget fluctuates, but is usually in the $17 – 18 billion range) over their lifetimes. Curiosity was over twice that.

Landing on Mars is harder than orbiting it, and takes more hardware, so it’s not surprising that rovers are more costly than orbiters. Cost accounting is difficult for these missions, but MAVEN’s price has been estimated at about $670 million.

I’m actually impressed by that number. MAVEN is a large (2500 kilogram!) laboratory that will analyze the atmosphere of Mars, employing a suite of eight complex instruments designed to investigate their environment around the red planet. It’s the latest in a series of ambitiously sophisticated space probes that NASA has sent to Mars.

I said that getting to Mars is expensive, but to be more accurate I should say it’s usually expensive. Compare MAVEN’s price to that of MOM: The cost of the Indian mission was only about $75 million. That seems like a bargain! Why is it so much less expensive than MAVEN?

For one thing, it’s a much smaller probe. It only has a mass of 500 kg, and the instruments are small, with a total mass of only 15 kg, There are five instruments on board, and they are far simpler than those on MAVEN. That’s not surprising, given that this is the Indian Space Research Organization’s first interplanetary mission; MOM is designed as a testbed for technology, a mission built to prove that they could do it at all, and find out just what they can achieve. Keeping it simple was necessary.

It was also built quickly, with cost-cutting measures in mind. It has a shorter mission lifetime (six months, compared to MAVEN’s year-long mission), too.

I’ve seen a few people acclaiming the low cost of MOM, and I think they miss this point; comparing MAVEN to MOM isn’t terribly fair. They are very different missions, and have very different goals.

I think the real shining part of MOM is not the low cost (though that is certainly remarkable) but that they did it at all. This is the first Mars probe launched by ISRO, and went off pretty much without a hitch. It was designed, built, and launched in mere months, and within hours of achieving orbit started returning images of the planet. This is the first time in history a single country has been able to get success from a Mars mission on their first try (ESA did so with Mars Express, but this is a consortium of various countries; perhaps the distinction isn’t a big one, but the point being getting to Mars is hard).

For that, I applaud the ISRO. And it’s worth noting that NASA has been sending probes to Mars since the 1960s, so over the decades they’ve gotten extremely good at it, and now can confidently send highly sophisticated spacecraft. I mentioned how much the big rovers cost, but Pathfinder, the first NASA rover sent to Mars, was far less expensive: The lander and rover together were about $175 million, and the total mission cost was $265 million. That’s a good analogy to MOM, given that Pathfinder actually landed on Mars.

This was India’s first step, and I expect that in the coming years they will learn, grow, and send their own increasingly amazing missions to our little neighbor. No doubt these will cost more and be more complex than MOM, but they’ve taken their first (very big) step toward interplanetary exploration… and they join a proud collection of scientists around the world who have dedicated their lives to science and discovery.