India’s first mission to Mars left Earth’s orbit early yesterday, clearing a critical hurdle in its journey to the Red Planet and overtaking the efforts in space of rival Asian giant China.
The success of the spacecraft, scheduled to orbit Mars by September next year, would carry India into a small club, which includes the US, Europe and Russia, whose probes have orbited or landed on Mars.
India’s venture, called Mangalyaan, faces further hurdles on its journey to Mars. Fewer than half of missions to the planet are successful.
“While Mangalyaan takes 1.2 billion dreams to Mars, we wish you sweet dreams!” India’s space agency said in a tweet soon after the event, referring to the citizens of the world’s second-most populous country.
China, a keen competitor in the space race, has considered putting a man on the moon sometime after 2020 and aims to land its first probe on the moon today.
It will deploy a buggy called the “Jade Rabbit” to explore the lunar surface in a mission that will also test its deep space communication technologies.
China’s Mars probe rode piggyback on a Russian spacecraft that failed to leave Earth’s orbit in November 2011. The spacecraft crumbled in the atmosphere and its fragments fell into the Pacific Ocean.
India’s mission showcases the country’s cheap technology, encouraging hopes it could capture more of the US$304 billion global space market, which includes launching satellites for other countries, analysts say.
“Given its cost-effective technology, India is attractive,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, an expert on space security at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi.
India’s low-cost Mars mission has a price tag of 4.5 billion rupees (US$73 million), slightly more than a 10th of the cost of NASA’s latest mission there, which launched on Nov. 18.
Homegrown companies — including India’s largest infrastructure group Larsen & Toubro, one of its biggest conglomerates, Godrej & Boyce, state-owned aircraft maker Hindustan Aeronautics, and Walchand Nagar Industries — made more than two-thirds of the parts for both the probe and the rocket, which launched it on Nov. 5.
India’s probe completed six orbits around Earth before yesterday’s “slingshot,” which set it on a path around the sun to carry it toward Mars. The slingshot requires precise calculations to eliminate the risk of missing the new orbit.
“Getting to Mars is a big achievement,” said Mayank Vahia, a professor in the astronomy and astrophysics department at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.
India’s space agency will have to make a few mid-course corrections to keep the probe on track.
Its next big challenge will be to enter an orbit around Mars next year, a test that Japan’s probe failed in 2003, after suffering electrical faults as it neared the planet.
“You have to slow the spacecraft down once it gets close to Mars to catch the orbit, but you can’t wait until Mars is in the field of view to do it — that’s too late,” Vahia said.
India launched its space program 50 years ago and developed its own rocket technology after Western powers levied sanctions for a 1974 nuclear weapons test. Five years ago, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.
The Mars probe will study the planet’s surface and mineral composition, besides sniffing the atmosphere for methane, a chemical strongly tied to life on Earth.