India has taken a giant leap in its space program by launching a spacecraft bound for Mars. If the country’s first interplanetary foray is successful, India will become the first Asian country and the fourth worldwide to conduct a mission to the Red Planet and also the country to launch the worlds cheapest mars mission.
The ‘Mangalyaan’ or Mars Orbiter was launched on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, at Sriharikota, on the Andhra Pradesh coast, at 14.38 Indian time. The mission is a bid to reach the Red Planet in September 2014 and test the martian atmosphere for hydrogen and methane gases. The mission will cost $73 million (£45 million), compared with the United States’ ‘Curiosity’ mission to Mars, which launched in 2011 at a cost of $2.5 billion (£1.56 billion).
Within 45 minutes of the launch of the Mars Orbiter mission, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman K. Radhakrishnan announced that it is going according to plan.
“I am very happy to announce that the PSLV C 25 vehicle has placed the Mars Orbiter spacecraft very precisely into an elliptical orbit around earth it has been a new and complex mission,” said Radhakrishnan.
The launch, a proud moment for India, was beamed live. The ambitious goal of reaching earth’s closest neighbor has been attempted by major space faring nations. But only three have achieved success – the United States, Russia and the European space agency.
Analysts say competition with China prompted India to assemble the mission at short notice. It was formally announced last August by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That was after a Chinese mission to Mars in 2011 failed.
Scientists say the Indian mission is primarily meant to develop the technology to design and conduct interplanetary missions.
Unlike its European and US counterparts, ISRO has a much smaller budget and cannot afford to experiment and build iteratively. While NASA and the European Space Agency usually make three models of the spacecraft, ISRO modeled everything on software and physically built only the final model.
This frugal approach does increase risks, which are evident from India’s previous failed space missions. Also, instead of flying directly, the 350-tonne rocket will orbit earth for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from the earth’s gravitational pull.
India’s space mission has been criticized as being a waste of resources in a country where a huge proportion of the population still lives in poverty. However, defendants of the program have stated that the space program goes hand-in-hand with India’s development goals. The Washington Post reportsDean Cheng a scholar at the Heritage Foundation saying, “The country realized early on that satellites would enable health officials to practice medicine remotely, reaching inaccessible parts of the country. The same was true for remote education. ISRO’s major focus, in other words, has been to use space research as a way to overcome the country’s (still) steep economic obstacles.”
The chairman of ISRO, K. Radhakrishnan, has defended the program saying that India’s budget for space exploration is only 0.34% of its annual budget, of which 7% has been allocated to planetary exploration. He also believes that the mission will also have positive implications for the rest of the economy, and will help with cyclone forecasting.