India’s first mission to Mars blasted off successfully yesterday, completing the first stage of an 11-month journey that could see New Delhi’s low-cost program win Asia’s race to the Red Planet.
A 350-tonne rocket carrying an unmanned probe took off into a slightly overcast sky on schedule at 2:38pm, monitored by dozens of tense-looking scientists at the southern spaceport of Sriharikota.
After 44 minutes, applause broke out around the control room after navigation ships in the South Pacific reported that the spacecraft had successfully entered orbit around the Earth.
Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K. Radhakrishnan allowed himself a smile, slapped a colleague on the back and announced he was “extremely happy” that the first objective of the mission had been reached.
At the end of this month, once enough velocity has been built up by the spacecraft as it circles the Earth, “the great, long, difficult voyage will start” to Mars, he said.
“In September 2014, we expect this spacecraft to be around Mars and the challenge then is to precisely reduce the velocity and get it into an orbit,” he said in comments broadcast by state television.
India has never attempted inter-planetary travel and more than half of all missions to Mars have ended in failure, including China’s attempt in 2011 and Japan’s in 2003.
The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as “Mangalyaan” in India, was revealed just 15 months ago by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, shortly after China’s orbiter failed to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
The timing and place of the announcement — during an Indian Independence Day speech — led to speculation that the country is seeking to make a point to its militarily and economically superior neighbor, despite denials from ISRO.
The gold-colored probe will aim to detect methane in the Martian atmosphere that could provide evidence of some sort of primitive life.
The mission was assembled hurriedly and carried into orbit by a rocket much smaller than US, European or Russian equivalents, which can blast directly out of Earth’s gravitational pull.
The cost of the project at 4.5 billion rupees (US$73 million) is less than one-sixth of the US$455 million earmarked by NASA for its Mars probe, which will launch later this month.
“We didn’t believe they’d be able to launch this early,” Joe Grebowsky, project scientist for the NASA Mars probe, said before blastoff. “If it’s successful, it’s fantastic.”
He said Mars, which has an elliptical orbit that means it is between 50 million to 400 million kilometers from Earth, was a far more complex prospect compared with the Moon mission India completed in 2008.
The program also has to contend with critics who say a country that struggles to feed its people adequately should not be splurging on space travel.
“Had they spent that money on us we could have had better houses, better clothes, sent our kids to good schools,” said Goribai, a laborer in New Delhi slum. “But no, the country wants to find aliens.”