Mangalyaan: India has success with cut price mission to Mars


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The Independent Online

Indian scientists erupted in applause and celebration today after the country successfully put a satellite into orbit around Mars – becoming only the fourth nation to do so.

Ten months after after the Mangalyaan robotic probe blasted off from a launch pad at Sriharitkota, located on an island off India's eastern coast, a 24 minute burn on the craft’s engines allowed it to be captured by Mars’ gravity.

“We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and innovation,” declared India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, at the Indian Space and Research Organisation control centre in Bangalore. “We have navigated our craft through a route known to very few.”

The mission, which cost around £50m, is one of the cheapest of its kind. This summer, Mr Modi pointed out that India had spent less on the project than Hollywood had spent to produce the movie Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

In contrast to the Indian project, the US space agency, NASA, spent more than £400m to deliver its Maven satellite into Mars’ orbit. It arrived there on Sunday, joining two other US satellites. On Wednesday, NASA congratulated India in a message on social media.

The Indian craft will now circle Mars for up to six months. It is carrying five solar-powered instruments to gather data about Mars, its weather systems and chemistry.

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 has said its Curiosity rover, which landed on the surface of Mars in August 2012, has not detected methane.

But Indian scientists pointed out Nasa had previously said there was no evidence of water on the moon. Then the 2008 Indian mission, Chandrayaan-1, confirmed the presence of water molecules within the lunar soil. The other 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.

Despite the relatively modest costs of the mission, some had questioned the priorities of a country that is confronting  huge social and economic problems and where up to 45 per cent of children are malnourished.

But scientists said India had benefitted hugely from the science developed during the space mission, which dates to the late 1950s. The benefits related to the field of remote sensing, flood management and cyclone warning.

Many observers of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, nicknamed MOM, said there was also a desire to push ahead of China.

Only three other space missions – the US, Russia and the European space agency – have successfully put a satellite into Mars’ orbit. More than half the world's previous attempts, 23 out of 41 missions, have failed, including one by Japan in 1999.

In November 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.

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

“Our spaceship will go near Mars and collect important scientific information,” he had said. “This spaceship to Mars will be a huge step for us in the area of science and technology.”