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A giant leap for India? Proud nation counts down to Mars launch

Should country with so many millions still grinding out lives in poverty be spending huge sums on space mission?

Two days after the festival of Diwali, when the skies will be lit up with millions of bright, blinding fireworks, India will launch into the heavens something it hopes will be equally dazzling.

If everything goes according to the plans, India's first mission to Mars will fire off at 3.28pm next Tuesday from the launch pad at Sriharitkota, located on an island off India's eastern coast.

The £62m, unmanned "Mangalayan" orbiter mission will then circle the earth, gradually increasing in velocity until booster rockets are fired, setting the craft on route for a 300-day journey to Mars. It is due to arrive in the orbit of the Red planet on September 21 next year, where it will then carry out a series of scientific investigations over four months.

"A Mars mission is the next logical extension of planetary exploration," said Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, a former head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the man credited with pushing India towards a successful lunar mission, something it achieved in 2008. "Now we are reaching towards the further reaches of the solar system."

The experts behind India's mission to Mars insist the project is purely driven by science. Others say there is intense national pride and a fierce desire to beat China to become the fourth successful Mars mission, after the US, Russia and European Space Agency.

Others have questioned India's priorities; should a country with so many millions of people still grinding out lives on misery here on earth be spending such sums on a mission to Mars? This argument is countered by those who insist that India benefits greatly from the scientific advances brought by the space programme.

The announcement that India would launch a mission to Mars was delivered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at an Independence Day speech on 15 August 2012, when he addressed the nation from the steps of Delhi's Red Fort.

Every such address on the anniversary of the day when India secured its freedom from British rule is one heavy with significance and bearing the weight of history and expectation.

On that occasion Mr Singh announced: "Our spaceship will go near Mars and collect important scientific information. This spaceship to Mars will be a huge step for us in the area of science and technology."

Indeed, officials say the Mars orbiter will be carrying equipment to enable it to perform five main scientific experiments during its four-month orbit of the Red planet.

Of particular interest will be tests to try and check for the presence of methane, a sign that Mars may once have borne life. Nasa recently said that its Curiosity rover, which landed on the surface of Mars in August 2012, has not detected methane.

Indian scientists point out that Nasa had previously said there was no evidence of water on the moon. Yet the 2008 Indian mission, Chandrayaan-1, confirmed the presence of water molecules within the lunar soil.

The other main instruments onboard the orbiter will map the surface composition of Mars, take colour photographs, measure the level of atomic hydrogen and examine the broader Martian atmosphere.

In addition to the science, those monitoring the Mars mission believe it also represents a statement of Indian ambition and aspiration. The project was fast-tracked and set-up within just 15 months of Mr Singh's speech.

That was partly associated with the 26 month cycle when the distance between the Earth and Mars will be at a minimum, said Deviprasad Karnik, an ISRO spokesman.

But India is very much aware of the presence of China in the space race. In November of 2011, China sent a small craft into the orbit of Mars, having hitched a ride on the Russian Phobus-Grunt mission. But the orbiter fell back to earth in an uncontrolled fall just two months later.

Pallava Bagla, a senior science journalist and author of Destination Moon, the story of India's moon mission, said the Mars project underscored an Asian space involving China, India and, to a lesser extent, Japan, which launched a failed Mars mission in 1998.

"This is an opportunity for India to reach clear of China and get to Mars," he said. "Any mission to Mars, anything announced from the Red Fort, is replete with national pride. It's showcasing a lot of indian technology and it's partly science. But there is national pride underpinning it and there is nothing wrong with that."

Observers point out that the cost of the mission is a fraction of that spent by other nations in their pursuit of Mars. But others say that in a country where hundreds of millions of people still endure lives of bitter poverty, such a sum could be better spent. In the UK, which is due to spend £200m a year in assistance to India at least until 2015, many believe the aid money should go elsewhere.

"There is an extraordinary comfort level among the middle class and government about the kind of lives that so many people have to live in this country," said Harsh Mander, a Delhi-based human rights activist. "By one measure, two million people die in India every year from purely avoidable causes. These should should be recognised an a enormous humanitarian catastrophe."

Defenders of the mission say India's space programme, which dates to the late 1950s and has sent scores of satellites into space, says the benefits of research have been of huge benefit - particularly in the fields of remote sensing, flood management, cyclone warning (such as the recent preparations ahead of Cyclone Phailin which struck India's eastern coast) and even fishery and forest management.

Ulaganathan Sankar, a professor at the Madras School of Economics and author of The Economics of India's Space Programme, said there were wide cost benefits to India from the various scientific advances. "It's not a negative," he said.

Mr Bagla, the journalist, said that India can afford to spend on both science and poverty reduction. Others say the problem is not a lack of money for social programmes, but that corruption and bad administration means the issues are not tackled

"There are around 400m Indians without electricity. There are 600m who defecate in the open and living lives of utter poverty," he said. "But do you think $100m is going to make any difference. There are already social problems spending billions of dollars."

India's space community will be watching the progress of Mangalayan from ISRO headquarters in Bangalore and from the launch site. Yet it will also be monitored by scientists from around the world.

Fabio Favata, a senior official with the Science and Robotic Exploration Directorate of European Space Agency, said it was only natural that a space power such as India should wish to launch a mission to Mars.

"It has always been a source of fascination and early astronomers thought they could see evidence of life there," he said, speaking from Amsterdam. In terms of the science and the risk of different countries duplicating one another's work, he said: "There is plenty for everybody to do."