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India successfully launches its first mission to Mars

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Nov 5, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—India will aim today to become the first Asian nation to launch a space probe to the planet Mars. (Update: The rocket carrying the probe successfully lifted-off at 09.08 UT).

The cut-price mission is due to blast off carrying an unmanned craft to orbit the Red Planet, studying its geology, climate, atmosphere and looking for signs of methane that might indicate life.

Yesterday the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) began filling the launch rocket’s second stage with propellant at the Sriharikota site at Andhra Pradesh, in the Bay of Bengal.

The orbiter, dubbed Mangalyaan, meaning Mars-craft, will be lifted into space by a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket that has previously been used to put satellites into pole-to-pole orbits around the Earth.

If circumstances delay lift-off, due at 09.08 UT, then ISRO will have around 20 days to get the probe into space, using the launch window that comes round every two years or so to reach Mars when it is at its closest to Earth.

NASA will use the same window later this month to send its own latest Mars probe, the orbiter Maven, on its way to the planet to make its own studies of the atmosphere.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will be a budget affair compared to NASA’s venture. Mangalyaan is costing around US $40 million compared to the US $671 million for Maven. Even ESA’s Mars Express cost considerably more at US $185 million ten years ago.

Once in space, Mangalyaan’s 350-tonne rocket stage will orbit the Earth for nearly a month to build up speed and momentum to send the probe on its interplanetary mission. MOM is due to go into a highly elliptical orbit around Mars on 24 September 2014.

Mars Express

An impression of Europe’s Mars Express which cost nearly five times more than India's Mangalyaan’s mission. Credit: ESA

The mission follows the success of the country’s first lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, which was launched in October 2008 and which lasted 312 days.

India’s bid to reach Mars has caused controversy when the nation is suffering so much poverty and received international aid. But the head of ISRO, Mr K Radhakrishnan, told the BBC that the Indian government spent only 0.34 per cent of its budget on the space programme.

He said: “This goes primarily for building satellites in communications and remote sensing and navigation for space applications. . . And if you look at the benefit that the country has accrued over the years, it has surpassed the money that has been spent in terms of tangible and intangible benefits.

“Today we have nearly 10 communication satellites and 10 remote sensing satellites in orbit. This is a great revolution that has taken place over these last 50 years in the country by a meagre expenditure that has been put into the space programme.”

ISRO also plans a second lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-2, which will also deliver a lunar rover provided by the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos.