India’s first mission to Mars has left Earth’s orbit, clearing a critical hurdle on its journey to the red planet.
The spacecraft was due to encounter Mars next September after a journey of about 10 months around the sun, the Bangalore-based Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said on Sunday, noting all onboard systems were performing normally.
“[It is] a turning point for us, as India will foray into the vast interplanetary space for the first time with an indigenous spacecraft to demonstrate our technological capabilities,” K Radhakrishnan, ISRO chairman, said.
India launched the Mars-bound spacecraft on November 5 in a complex, $73m mission aimed at gathering images and data on how Martian weather systems work and what happened to the large quantities of water believed to have once existed there.
The orbiter also will search Mars for methane, a key chemical in life processes that could also come from geological processes, in an effort to improve our understanding about what conditions might make life possible.
The success of the Mangalyaan orbiter would bring India into a small club of countries, including the US, Europe and Russia, whose probes have orbited or landed on Mars.
But fewer than half of missions to Mars are successful.
“While Mangalyaan takes 1.2 billion dreams to Mars, we wish you sweet dreams!” ISRO said in a tweet soon after Sunday’s event.
The 1,350kg orbiter must travel 780 million km over 300 days to reach an orbit around Mars by next September.
The spacecraft is using an unusual “slingshot” method for interplanetary journeys; lacking enough rocket power to blast directly out of Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull, Mangalyaan orbited the Earth until the end of November while building up enough velocity to break free.
India’s low-cost mission showcases the country’s cheap technology, encouraging hopes it could capture more of the $304bn global space market, which includes launching satellites for other countries, analysts say.
“Given its cost-effective technology, India is attractive,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, an expert on space security at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in Delhi.
The Mangalyaan project was disclosed just 15 months ago by Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, shortly after China’s attempt to reach Mars flopped when it failed to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
The timing of the announcement, in an Independence Day speech, led to speculation that India was seeking to make a point to its militarily and economically superior neighbour, despite denials from the ISRO.