NEW DELHI - India will launch a spacecraft to Mars on November 5 - an ambitious feat attempted only by a handful of countries. The Red Planet mission marks a major expansion of India’s space program as it tries to emerge on the frontlines of space exploration.
It’s "Destination Mars" on Tuesday. As the day approaches there is a mounting sense of anticipation among scientists at the space station in Sriharikota on India’s east coast from where the unmanned spacecraft will be launched.
The Mars Orbiter mission will be the country’s first interplanetary mission. Spokesman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Deviprasad Karnik, said the main challenge is for the spacecraft to successfully enter the Mars orbit by September of next year.
“The primary objective is to demonstrate the technical capability of India to reach Mars and then conduct a meaningful science experiment. The whole country is looking forward to it,” Karnik said.
That is not surprising. Despite much advancement in space technology, a mission to Mars is still a challenge. Only about one third have been successful.
The 1350 kilogram craft equipped with five instruments will study the surface, topography and atmosphere. In particular, it will look for evidence of methane, whose presence can indicate if earth’s closest neighbor has an environment to support life.
If successful, India will be the fourth to survey the planet from up close besides Russia, the United States and the European Space Agency.
India’s Mars Orbiter will be launched two weeks before the United States also sends another spacecraft to Mars.
India’s program has been put together in a relatively short period - about four years.
Several analysts feel rivalry with the other Asian giant, China, whose space program is ahead of India’s, gave momentum to the mission.
Dean Cheng at the Heritage Foundation in Washington said India is taking advantage of an opportunity provided by the failure of China’s first mission to Mars in 2011.
“The failure of the Chinese expedition to Mars I think has given India an opportunity to publicly display its capability and in a sense to play one upmanship with China," Cheng said. "So I think that this particular mission is being moved ahead at this moment in time to make sure that India can show the world that India’s space capabilities are not necessarily that far behind China’s.”
Senior Indian scientists however have said they are not in a race with anybody - only with themselves to excel.
India’s Mars mission does mark a major expansion of India’s space program as it sets its eyes firmly on space exploration. The first such bid came in 2008 when it sent an unmanned craft to the moon.
There has been some criticism of India’s Mars program as an unnecessary extravagance by a country which still needs to do much to improve the life of millions of poor people. For long, India has justified its space program as one which does exactly that by focusing on areas such as weather forecasting and using satellites to beam education programs to remote areas.
A former senior scientist at ISRO, K.R. Sridhara Murthy, hopes the mission will become a stepping stone for more progress. But he added that entering the realm of deep space exploration will hopefully not distract India from these important objectives.
“Certainly there are tremendous needs on the ground which ISRO has to concentrate and find mechanisms of delivery to improve conditions in India and there is lot of potential here…interplanetary missions are good but it cannot be predominant part of India’s program as far as India’s needs are concerned," Murthy said.
India points to the relatively modest budget for the mission: $70 million. Officials say that is a fraction of what the U.S. mission will be costing.
Dean Cheng said India is willing to commit significant resources to its space program. He said besides technological and scientific objectives, the Mars mission is linked to national prestige and a desire by India to be counted among the world’s up and coming countries.
“Assuming that all goes well, India will be joining a very small, very select group," Cheng noted. "This is in a sense India’s coming-out-party if you will, certainly in terms of space exploration.”
That is what India will be hoping - that its coming-out-party in space goes off without a hitch.