December 6, 2013
India blasts off in race to Mars with low-cost mission
India launched its first rocket to Mars aiming to reach the red planet at a much lower cost than successful missions by other nations, positioning the emerging Asian giant as a budget player in the latest global space race.
The Mars Orbiter Mission's red and white striped rocket blasted off from the southeastern coast, streaking across the sky in a blazing trail, and is scheduled to orbit Mars by next September.
Probes to Mars have a high failure rate and a success would be a boost for Indian national pride, especially after a similar mission by China failed to leave Earth's orbit in 2011.
Only the United States, Europe, and Russia have sent probes that have orbited or landed on the planet.
"The ISRO team will fulfill the expectations that the nation has in them," said K. Radhakrishnan, head of the state-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), after the spacecraft was successfully placed into orbit around Earth. "The journey has only begun. The challenging phase is coming."
India's space program began 50 years ago and developed rapidly after Western powers imposed sanctions in response to a nuclear weapons test in 1974, spurring its scientists to build advanced rocket technology. Five years ago, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.
India's relative prowess in space contrasts with mixed results in the aerospace industry. State-run Hindustan Aeronautics has been developing a light combat aircraft since the early 1980s with no success so far.
"The point is we don't have the sound technological base for a car, forget about a fighter jet," said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
The mission plans to study the Martian surface and mineral composition as well as search the atmosphere for methane, the chemical strongly tied to life on Earth. Recent measurements by NASA's rover, Curiosity, show only trace amounts of it on Mars.
India's space program has drawn criticism in a country that is dogged by poverty and power shortages, and is now experiencing its sharpest economic slowdown in a decade.
India has long argued that technology developed in its space program has practical applications to everyday life.
"For a country like India, it's not a luxury, it's a necessity," said Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and chief executive of Earth2Orbit, India's first private space start-up. She argued that satellites have applications from television broadcasting to weather forecasting for disaster management.
The mission is considerably cheaper than some of India's more lavish spending schemes, including a $340 million plan to build the world's largest statue in the state of Gujarat.