India has launched its first inter-planetary mission in an attempt to become the only Asian country to reach the planet of Mars.
A rocket carrying a 1.35-tonne unmanned probe vehicle lifted off from the country’s southern island of Sriharikota on Tuesday, where it began a 300-day, 780-million-km journey to study the Martian atmosphere.
After 44 minutes, applause rippled around the control room after monitoring ships stationed in the South Pacific reported that the spacecraft had successfully completed the first stage of its 300-day journey.
The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as Mangalyaan [Mars Craft] in Hindi, was programmed to first ride a rocket into an elliptical orbit around Earth.
After that, it was due to perform a series of technical manoeuvres and short burns to raise its orbit before propelling towards Mars.
K Radhakrishnan, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman, slapped a colleague on the back and said he was “extremely happy” to announce that the rocket had placed the probe in an orbit around Earth.
The mission is India’s first inter-planetary journey that requires developing technology to allow a probe to run autonomously.
“The biggest challenge will be precisely navigating the spacecraft to Mars,” Radhakrishnan had said before the launch.
Indian scientists sent a probe called Chandrayaan to the moon five years ago. The mission faced several challenges, including losing contact with controllers in 2009 and when a new, larger launch vehicle blew up after take-off in 2010.
Manmohan Singh, Indian prime minister, announced the Mars mission 15 months ago shortly after a Chinese attempt to reach the faraway planet failed to leave earth’s atmosphere.
Failed Asian attempts
More than half of all attempted missions to Mars have failed, including a Chinese attempt in 2011 and Japan’s in 2003.
Only the US, Russia and the European Union have successfully reached Mars to date.
The Indian project will cost Rs4.5bn ($73m), only a fraction of the cost of previous foreign missions.
Still, local critics of the project have said India should focus on meeting its citizens’ socio-economic needs, rather than spending money on space travel.
India has defended its $1bn space programme, saying it helps the country’s economic development through satellites that monitor weather and water resources, and enable communication in remote parts of the country.
ISRO also shares its rocket technology with the state-run defence agency responsible for India’s expanding missile programme.
One of the main goals of the Indian mission is to find evidence of methane gas on Mars, which would support the idea that the Red Planet can host primitive life forms.
A 2012 US exploration mission to Mars, known as Curiosity, disproved this theory when it discovered only trace elements of methane in the Martian atmosphere.
The US was the first country to successfully send a robotic explorer vehicle to Mars.
NASA will launch another Martian study probe on November 18.