India’s mission to Mars blasts off successfully

India launches its first spacecraft bound for Mars, known in Hindi as ‘Mangalyaan’, in a complex mission that it hopes will demonstrate and advance technologies for space travel.

The PSLV-C25 launch vehicle, carrying the Mars Orbiter probe as its payload, lifts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. Seshadri Sukumar / AFP
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NEW DELHI // India’s first mission to Mars blasted off successfully today, completing the first stage of an 11-month journey that could see New Delhi’s low-cost space programme win Asia’s race to the red planet.

A 350-tonne rocket carrying an unmanned probe soared into a slightly overcast sky on schedule, monitored by dozens of scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) spaceport on the east-coast island of Sriharikota .

Hundreds of people watched the launch and many more across the country watched it live on TV.

After 44 minutes, applause broke out in the tense control room as navigation ships in the South Pacific reported that the spacecraft had successfully entered orbit around Earth.

At the end of this month, once enough velocity has been built up to break free from Earth’s gravitational pull, “the great, long, difficult voyage will start” to Mars, said K Radhakrishnan, the Isro chairman.

“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 explained in a television broadcast.

The country has never before attempted inter-planetary travel, and more than half of all missions to Mars have ended in failure, including China’s in 2011 and Japan’s in 2003.

Only the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency have been successful.

The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as “Mangalyaan” in Hindi, was revealed by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, only 15 months ago, shortly after China’s attempt flopped.

The timing and place of the announcement – in an Independence Day speech – led to speculation that India was seeking to make a point to its militarily and economically superior neighbour, despite denials from ISRO.

The gold-coloured probe, the size of a small car, will try to detect methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could provide evidence of some sort of life form on the fourth planet from the sun.

The mission had been hurriedly assembled, and was carried into orbit by a rocket much smaller than rival launch vehicles that can blast out of Earth’s gravitational pull and head directly for Mars.

The cost of the project, at 4.5 billion rupees (Dh266 million), is less than a sixth of the Dh1.63bn earmarked for a Mars probe that the US space agency Nasa will launch later this month.

“We didn’t believe they’d be able to launch this early,” said a project scientist for the Nasa Mars probe, Joe Grebowsky.

He stressed that journeying to Mars, which has an elliptical orbit – meaning its distance from Earth varies between 50 million and 400 million kilometres – was a far more complex prospect than the Moon, which India reached in 2008.

“When you shoot a rocket at Mars you have to take into account that Mars is going to move a good deal before you get there. The Moon is fairly close,” he said.

There have been recent setbacks for India too, including when its Moon probe Chandrayaan lost contact with its controllers in 2009. Another, larger launch vehicle blew up after take-off in 2010.

The programme also has to contend with critics who say a country that struggles to feed its people and where more than half have no toilets 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 labourer in a slum in the diplomatic area of the capital.

“But no, the country wants to find aliens,” she said.

ISRO counters that its technology has helped economic development through satellites which monitor weather and water resources and enable communication in remote areas.

The Bangalore-based organisation and its 16,000 staff also share their rocket technology with the state-run defence body responsible for India’s missile programme.

* Agence France-Presse