India began a countdown yesterday to the launch of its most ambitious and risky space mission to date: sending a probe to Mars that was conceived in just 15 months on a tiny budget.
After a recent Chinese attempt flopped, India is seeking to make a statement of its technological prowess by becoming the first Asian power to reach the Red Planet more than 200 million kilometers away.
An unmanned probe, weighing 1.35 tonnes and about the size of a large refrigerator, will leave Earth strapped to an Indian rocket which is set to blast off from the country’s southeast coast tomorrow afternoon.
Wrapped in a golden film, the orbiter will carry advanced sensors to measure the Martian atmosphere, hoping to detect traces of methane which could help prove the existence of some sort of primitive life.
“Any interplanetary probe is complex. As we can see for Mars, there were 51 missions so far around the world and there were 21 successful missions,” Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K. Radhakrishnan told reporters last month.
Undeterred by the failure rates, he laughed off any suggestion of last-minute nerves, saying: “If it is a failure, then learn. Failure is a stepping stone for success.”
Success would be a source of national pride for Indians, whose 2008 unmanned mission to the moon helped prove the existence of water in another leap forward, 39 years after Neil Armstrong set foot there.
It would also bolster the reputation of India — home of the world’s cheapest car — as a leader in low-cost innovation. The project was announced in August last year with a budget of only 4.5 billion rupees (US$73 million).
Lacking a rocket large enough to fire the satellite directly out of Earth’s atmosphere, ISRO has also had to rely on another famed Indian specialism of Jugaad — confecting a cheap work-around solution.
Instead of flying directly, the 350 tonne rocket will orbit the Earth for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from the Earth’s gravitational pull.
“Don’t underestimate it because it is a low-cost mission that is being done for the first time,” Indian science journalist Pallava Bagla, author of the book Destination Moon, told reporters. “Yes, there is Jugaad in it, there is innovation in it ... and everyone wants to do low-cost missions nowadays.”
NASA is under budget pressure and has faced cuts to proposed Mars missions in 2016 and 2018, despite having an overall objective set by US President Barack Obama of sending an astronaut there by 2030.
The US is the only nation that has successfully landed robotic explorers on Mars, the most recent being Curiosity, a nearly 1 tonne vehicle which touched down in August last year.
One of its discoveries appeared to undercut the purpose of the Indian mission after a study published in September revealed that Curiosity detected only trace elements of methane in the Mars atmosphere.
NASA will help ISRO with ground monitoring from three deep-space facilities after the launch at 2:38pm tomorrow. The US space agency will send its own probe, Maven, 13 days later.
The official countdown for blastoff of the Indian orbiter, nicknamed “Mangalyaan” by local media, began at 6:08am yesterday, which was also the Hindu festival of lights known as Diwali.
Only the US, Russia and the EU have succeeded in reaching Mars before. China failed in 2011 with its probe aboard a Russian rocket and Japan’s effort floundered in 2003.
Radhakrishnan denies that India is competing with China, despite speculation that India accelerated its Mars mission to prove a point against its militarily and economically superior Asian rival.
He also defends ISRO and its 16,000-strong workforce against suggestions that New Delhi should not be spending on space when more than one-third of the country’s children are malnourished and half of Indians have no toilets.
“Space is one area right from the beginning that has been contributing to the development process of the country,” he said, pointing to better weather forecasting for farmers and satellite communication networks.
Upendra Choudhury, an associate professor at Aligarh Muslim University and expert on India’s ballistic missile program, said the spending has boosted national security.
“India’s achievements in space technology are contributing to its missile technology, including the Agni-V,” he told reporters.
The Agni-V, capable of reaching Beijing and eastern Europe, was test fired for the first time in April last year and catapulted India into a small group of countries with long-distance missile technology.