By Sruthi Gottipati
India launched its first rocket to Mars on Tuesday, aiming to reach the red planet at a much lower cost than successful missions by other nations, positioning the emerging Asian giant as a budget player in the latest global space race.
The Mars Orbiter Mission’s red and white striped rocket blasted off from the southeastern coast, streaking across the sky in a blazing trail, and is scheduled to orbit Mars by next September.
Probes to Mars have a high failure rate and a success would be a boost for Indian national pride, especially after a similar mission by China failed to leave Earth’s orbit in 2011.
Only the United States, Europe and Russia have sent probes that have orbited or landed on the planet.
“The ISRO team will fulfil the expectations that the nation has in them,” said K. Radhakrishnan, head of the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), after the spacecraft was successfully placed into orbit around Earth. “The journey has only begun. The challenging phase is coming.”
India’s space programme began 50 years ago and developed rapidly after Western powers imposed sanctions in response to a nuclear weapons test in 1974, spurring its scientists to build advanced rocket technology. Five years ago, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.
The mission plans to study the Martian surface and mineral composition as well as search the atmosphere for methane, the chemical strongly tied to life on Earth. Recent measurements by NASA’s rover, Curiosity, show only trace amounts of it on Mars.
India’s space programme has drawn criticism in a country that is dogged by poverty and power shortages, and is now experiencing its sharpest economic slowdown in a decade.
India has long argued that technology developed in its space programme has practical applications to everyday life.
“For a country like India, it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” said Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and chief executive of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up. She argued that satellites have applications from television broadcasting to weather forecasting for disaster management.
The mission is considerably cheaper than some of India’s more lavish spending schemes, including a $340 million plan to build the world’s largest statue in the state of Gujarat.
Analysts say India could capture more of the $304 billion global space market with its low-cost technology. The probe’s 4.5 billion rupee ($73 million) price tag is a fraction of the cost of NASA’s MAVEN mission due to launch this month.
ISRO designed the craft to go around Earth six or seven times to build up the momentum needed to slingshot it to Mars, a measure that will help it save fuel, said Mayank N. Vahia, a scientist in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
It costs India about 1,000 rupees ($16.20) to put a gram weight into space, less than a tenth of NASA’s cost, he said.
India’s space programme still has challenges, including the need to import components and the lack of a deep space monitoring system which means it will rely on the United States to watch the satellite once it nears Mars.
Officials dismissed the suggestion that India raced to prepare Tuesday’s launch to trump China’s failed attempt at Mars.
“We’re not in a race with anybody,” said ISRO spokesman Deviprasad Karnik, noting that the voyage can happen only every 26 months, when the spacecraft can travel the shortest distance between Earth and Mars.
“The mission to Mars has to be organised whenever there is an opportunity available.”
By Sruthi Gottipati