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Mars Mission Marks Milestone in India's Space Program

  • Anjana Pasricha

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C-20 blasts off, carrying Indo-French satellite SARAL from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota, north of the southern Indian city of Chennai, February 25, 2013.

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C-20 blasts off, carrying Indo-French satellite SARAL from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota, north of the southern Indian city of Chennai, February 25, 2013.

India’s ambitious plan to send a spacecraft to Mars later this year marks a major milestone in its space program. The mission is a bid by India to catch up in the global space race and join the league of major space-faring nations.

The unmanned, Indian spacecraft will be launched around November, when the red planet is closest to earth. It will take nine months to reach Mars' orbit.

An official at the Indian Space Research Organization, Deviprasad Karnik, says the Mars Orbiter mission will be equipped with a methane sensor and look for signs of past life.

"The presence of methane on the surface of Mars will give us an indication of probability of life existence either from biological or zoological source," said Karnik.

The Mars mission comes five years after India sent an unmanned spacecraft to the moon and detected evidence of water on the lunar surface for the first time. It was heralded as a significant scientific discovery.

India now joins a handful of nations, including the United States, Russia, China and Japan, that have sent spacecrafts to probe Mars.

James Oberg, a space consultant based in Houston, Texas, says India’s Mars mission has the potential to make an important contribution.

"The time is now for many players to be doing many things across a much wider range of target goals than in the simple days of the moon race. It is not just playing a game, or showing off at the Olympics or something. It is actually making contributions to the world," he said. "We have seen the technology that India has brought to the space program, very significant technology, and the goals of the program appear to me to be very realistic and very important for India as well as the rest of the world."

Shift in mission

The Mars mission marks a fundamental shift in India's space mission. For more than four decades, those missions focused on improving the life of ordinary Indians by sending communication and earth observation satellites into space. They helped in many ways. They brought television to remote corners, looked for water in drought prone districts and helped farmers reclaim wasteland. Satellite images connected rural areas to city hospitals.

But India decided to aim higher and enter the realm of space exploration after its scientists developed rocket technology. Many see this as part of the Asian country’s ambitions to be seen as one of the world’s leading countries, and not be left behind in the space race by countries like China.

Entering the global space race

Speaking after the Indian Space Research Organization launched seven satellites in February, President Pranab Mukherjee says the Mars mission will place India among the few nations that have attempted such a feat.

"For India to occupy its right place in the comity of nations, we must promote innovation and technological advancement," he said.

The Mars mission will not be easy - only about one of every three missions to the Red Planet has been a success. It is not only difficult to send a craft to Mars, it is equally challenging for it to arrive in proper working order and transmit data back to Earth.

Ajey Lele, a space analyst at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, says the aims of India’s Mars mission are modest and intended to test India’s capability of probing deep space.

“It’s a very small payload. India’s intention of sending this mission is not to do a major assessment of Mars at this point in time. The idea is to learn how to reach into the close proximity to Mars. So this is basically going to be an experimental mission and subsequently you can think of major payloads," said Lele.

Controversy over cost

The Mars mission's price tag - about $80 million - has irked critics who say a country with millions of poor people should spend resources on tackling more pressing issues such as malnutrition and illiteracy.

Bindeswar Pathak is a welfare activist in New Delhi, who has helped improve sanitation in a country where half the population does not have access to adequate toilet facilities.

“Equal amount should be spent on poverty eradication. They have lopsided balance," said Pathak. "On one hand, they are trying to go to Mars. But on the other hand, we have people who are marginalized and poor. They lack many facilities.”

Defenders of the space mission say India’s space program runs on a low budget and is widely acknowledged as being thrifty.

Space analysts say the $80 million cost for the Mars mission is no more than the price of a Boeing aircraft and well within the emerging economy’s reach. The cost is unlikely to deter India from pressing ahead with its ambitions in space. It is already setting its sights higher, and hopes to send a manned mission to space by 2020.

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