By Aditya Kalra
India’s low-cost mission to Mars successfully entered the red planet’s orbit on Wednesday, crowning what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said was a “near impossible” push to complete the trip on its maiden attempt.
The Mars Orbiter Mission cost $74 million or about three-quarters of the amount to make the Oscar-winning movie Gravity about astronauts stranded in space.
“History has been created today,” said Modi, who burst into applause along with hundreds of scientists at the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when it was announced the mission had been accomplished.
“We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible,” said Modi, wearing a red waistcoat at the space command centre in the southern city of Bangalore.
Modi has said he wants to expand the country’s five-decade-old space programme.
With a spacecraft around Mars, India joins a small group of nations – the United States, Russia and Europe – that have successfully sent probes to orbit or land on Mars. Others, however, failed several times initially.
ISRO successfully ignited the main 440 Newton liquid engine and eight small thrusters that fired for 24-minutes and trimmed the speed of the craft to allow smooth orbit insertion under Mars’ shadow. A confirmation of orbit entry was received at around 8 a.m. India time (0230 GMT).
After completing the 666 million km journey in more than 10 months, the spacecraft called Mangalyaan will now study the red planet’s surface and scan its atmosphere for chemical methane. It will not land on Mars.
It will also be in the company of NASA’s spacecraft Maven that slipped into an orbit around Mars on Sunday with an aim to scan the planet’s upper atmosphere. Maven cost $671 million, roughly 10 times the Indian mission’s stated cost.
The technological triumph is fortuitously timed for Modi – he will be able to flaunt the achievement on a trip to the United States starting on Friday that includes an address to the United Nations.
“The success of our space programme is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation. Our space programme has been an example of achievement,” said the nationalist prime minister.
The mission makes India the first country in Asia to reach Mars, after an attempt by regional rival China failed to leave earth’s orbit in 2011.
Modi also holds the additional charge as India’s minister of space, and in June endorsed the low-cost of the project, saying it cost even less than the budget ‘Gravity’. The Hollywood blockbuster cost about $100 million to make.
The country’s space programme was launched in the early 1960s and India developed its own rocket technology after Western powers imposed sanctions for a nuclear weapons test in 1974.