Will Mars mission propel India ahead of China in space race?

New York: The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will boldly launch its Mars craft Mangalyaan on Tuesday afternoon from Shriharikota, the start of a 300-day, 485 million-mile journey to orbit Mars and survey its geology and atmosphere.

India’s technological ability to explore the solar system has certainly caught America’s eye.

“The mission, if successful, would be a technological leap that would propel India ahead of space rivals China and Japan in the field of interplanetary exploration,” said The Wall Street Journal ahead of the blast-off at 2:38 p.m. on Tuesday.

 Will Mars mission propel India ahead of China in space race?

Representational image. Getty

This is India's first Mars mission, so be warned no country has been successful on its first try, unless India proves to be the exception. More than half the world's attempts to reach Mars, 23 out of 40 missions, have come to naught, including missions by Japan in 1999 and China two years ago.

“Sending a spacecraft to Mars would bring India immense prestige, but we are doing this for ourselves. The main thrust of space science in India has always been people-centric, to benefit the common man and society," said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO.

The Mars mission is expected to cost about $83 million and will give India a shot at becoming only the fourth country to reach the Red Planet, after the Soviet Union, US and Europe.

“Questions are sometimes asked about whether a poor country like India can afford a space program and whether the funds spent on space exploration, albeit modest, could be better utilized elsewhere,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a speech last year.

“This misses the point that a nation’s state of development is finally a product of its technological prowess.”

Though its budget is less than one-tenth that of NASA’s, it is important to note that experts say ISRO has grown into one of the world’s top six space programs since its inception.

Geoffrey Pyatt, principal deputy assistant secretary for South Asia said at a meeting of the US-India Civil Space Joint Working Group that India's first Mars mission is an “exciting opportunity for US-India collaboration."

India’s mission may have lost some thunder after the successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in August 2012 but it does show big thinking. The Americans are also hoping data collected by India will complement research expected to be conducted with a probe NASA will launch later this month, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, nicknamed MAVEN.

So what, with data from Curiosity and six other rovers that have landed on Mars, can India’s new Mars orbiter add to the mix? Plenty, say US experts who point out that India’s Mars Orbiter mission will be equipped with a methane sensor and look for signs of past life.

"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," James Oberg, a space consultant in Houston, Texas earlier told Voice of America.

"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," Oberg added.

India's space exploration program began in 1962. It pulled off a major coup in the international community with its first lunar mission. Five years ago, India’s Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon for the first time. It was hailed as a significant scientific discovery.

India’s space program has managed to get a lot done, despite operating at a budget of $1.34 billion last year (by comparison, NASA’s 2013 budget is $17.7 billion). India’s space program has developed a successful satellite regime focused on improving the life of ordinary Indians.

The 3,400-kg GSAT-10 communication satellite, the heaviest ever built by India, was launched recently aboard an Ariane-5 rocket. The GSAT-10 will boost telecommunications, direct-to-home and radio navigation services by adding 30 much-needed transponders to India’s current capacity. India is currently leasing foreign transponders to meet domestic demand.

India’s self-reliant space program’s objectives include communication and education via satellite, management of natural resources through remote sensing technology, weather forecasting and development of indigenous satellites and satellite launch vehicles.

In August, India launched its first dedicated military satellite for naval intelligence gathering, amid mounting concerns about the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

Updated Date: Nov 05, 2013 10:39:03 IST