Costing 10 times less than NASA’s MAVEN mission, India’s Mangalyaan spacecraft reaches Mars on its maiden voyage.
India’s low-cost mission to Mars successfully enters the red planet’s orbit on Sept 24, crowning what Prime Minister Narendra Modi says was a “near impossible” push to become the only country to complete the trip on its maiden attempt. The Mars Orbiter Mission was achieved on a budget of US$74 million, almost 10 times less than the amount the US space agency NASA spent on sending the Maven spacecraft to Mars.
“History has been created today,” says Modi, bursting into applause along with hundreds of scientists at the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when it was announced the mission had been accomplished. “We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible,” says Modi, wearing a red waistcoat at the space command centre in the southern city of Bangalore.
India joins the US, Russia and Europe in successfully sending probes to orbit or land on Mars. The mission also makes India the first country in Asia to reach Mars, after an attempt by regional rival China failed to leave Earth’s orbit in 2011.
ISRO successfully ignited the main 440 Newton liquid engine and eight small thrusters that fired for 24 minutes and trimmed the speed of the craft to allow smooth orbit. A confirmation of orbit entry was received at around 8am India time (10:30pm EDT on Sept 23).
After completing the 666 million km journey in more than 10 months, the spacecraft called Mangalyaan – meaning “Mars craft” in Hindi – will now study the red planet’s surface and scan its atmosphere for chemical methane. It will not land on Mars.
ISRO scientists will operate five scientific instruments on the spacecraft to gather data, says the space agency’s scientific secretary V. Koteswara Rao. The expected lifespan of the craft is six months, after which it will run out of fuel and not be able to maintain its orbit.
Modi has said he wants to expand the country’s five-decade-old space program. The technological triumph is fortuitously timed for him – he will be able to flaunt the achievement on a trip to the US starting Sept 26. Modi, who is also India’s minister of space, has endorsed the low-cost of the project, saying it cost even less than the budget of Gravity – the 2013 sci-fi film starring Sandra Bullock, which cost US$100mil to make.
NASA, which helped India with communications on the mission, congratulated ISRO. The Mangalyaan and the NASA’s Maven, built at a cost of US$671mil, are simultaneously orbiting the red planet.
India's game changer
India’s space program was launched in the early 1960s and the country developed its own rocket technology after Western powers imposed sanctions on nuclear weapons test in 1974. Still, the country remains a small player in the global space industry that grew to US$314bil in revenues and government budgets in 2013, according to Colorado-based Space Foundation.
Experts say the Mars mission's success can help change that. “ISRO will now hopefully attract a lot of business,” says Mayank N. Vahia, a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. “We will now attract more international attention and international trade for satellites.”
Two-thirds of the craft’s parts were made by Indian companies such as Larsen & Toubro LART.NS and Godrej & Boyce.
With 30 Indian and 40 foreign satellite launches so far, its nearest cheap competition would be China, which is armed with bigger space launchers. ISRO recently signed an agreement with China National Space Administration to cooperate in research and development of various satellites.
Despite the success in Mars, India faces criticism back on Earth for its budget spending on space research as millions of its citizens still go hungry. – Reuters