India launches spacecraft to Mars

 

The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder reports from inside the Satish Dhawan Space Centre

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India has successfully launched a spacecraft to the Red Planet - with the aim of becoming the fourth space agency to reach Mars.

The Mars Orbiter Mission took off at 09:08 GMT from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the country's east coast.

The head of India's space agency told the BBC the mission would demonstrate the technological capability to reach Mars orbit and carry out experiments.

The spacecraft is set to travel for 300 days, reaching Mars orbit in 2014.

If the satellite orbits the Red Planet, India's space agency will become the fourth in the world after those of the US, Russia and Europe to undertake a successful Mars mission.

In order for the MOM to embark on the right trajectory for its 300-day, 780-million km journey, it must carry out its final orbital burn by 30 November.

The moment of lift-off

Some observers are viewing the launch of the MOM, also known by the informal name of Mangalyaan (Mars-craft), as the latest salvo in a burgeoning space race between the Asian powers of India, China, Japan, South Korea and others.

The last few numbers of the countdown came over the tannoy. Three, two, one, zero. Then silence. A second later, a white-hot fireball rose above the tree line shrouding the launch site from the watching media. Then came a roar of sound and India's first ever mission to Mars was on its way.

Some of the journalists clapped and cheered as the rocket soared higher, a trail of white smoke bubbling behind. No one was interested here in questions about India's priorities. First stage normal, intoned the countdown announcer.

The fireball was becoming a distant speck in the sky above the Bay of Bengal. Camera crews and reporters were already starting to pack their gear. India's Mars probe is not due to reach the atmosphere of the Red Planet until next September, but the first stage of the mission went as planned.

Prof Andrew Coates, from University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, told BBC News: "I think this mission really brings India to the table of international space exploration. Interplanetary exploration is certainly not trivial to do, and [India] has found some interesting scientific niches to make some measurements in."

Those niche areas include searching for the signature of methane (CH4) in the Martian atmosphere, which has previously been detected from Martian orbit and telescopes on Earth. However, Nasa's Curiosity rover recently failed to find the gas in its measurements of atmospheric gases.

CH4 has a short lifetime in the Martian atmosphere, meaning that some source on the Red Planet must replenish it. Intriguingly, some 95% of atmospheric methane on Earth is produced by microbes, which has led some to propose the possibility of a biosphere deep beneath the Martian surface. But the gas can be produced by geological processes too, most notably by volcanism.

Definitive conclusions are likely to be elusive, but the spacecraft's Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) instrument will aim to make measurements and map any potential sources of methane "plumes".

The spacecraft will also examine the rate of loss of atmospheric gases to outer space. This could provide insights into the planet's history; billions of years ago, the envelope of gases around Mars is thought to have been more substantial.

graphic, BBC

At $72m (£45m), the mission is comparatively cheap, but some commentators have still questioned whether a country with one of the highest rankings for childhood malnutrition in the world should be spending millions on a mission to the Red Planet.

In one sense, India was left in a quandary because of the failure of its most powerful launcher, the first choice to loft the MOM into orbit. It meant the country's space agency could no longer fire the satellite directly out of Earth's atmosphere.

Mars mission history

Mars
  • The USSR, Russia, US, Britain, Europe, Japan and China have all launched missions to Mars
  • There have been around 40 missions (but the total depends on how they are added up)
  • More than half the world's attempts to reach the Red Planet have failed
  • Only the US, USSR and Europe have been successful to date

As a fuel-saving alternative, the spacecraft will circle Earth in an elliptical orbit for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from our planet's gravitational pull.

The formal name for the route MOM will take to Mars is a "Hohmann Transfer Orbit". The spacecraft takes advantage of a favourable planetary alignment, carrying out six small engine burns over November to lift it to a higher orbit before a final burn sends it off on an interplanetary trajectory.

The difficulty of visiting the Red Planet will not be lost on Indian officials; just under half the total attempts to reach Mars have succeeded. But Prof Coates said the planned mechanics for getting to Mars were on a sound footing, and that the probe stood a good chance as long as its engines fired correctly.

Those who defend India's current direction in space exploration say the technological development required to mount this mission could indirectly benefit the country's other activities, including poverty reduction.

Nisha Agrawal, chief executive of Oxfam in India, told the BBC: "India is home to poor people but it's also an emerging economy, it's a middle-income country, it's a member of the G20. What is hard for people to get their head around is that we are home to poverty but also a global power.

MARS MISSION PAYLOADS

  • Lyman Alpha Photomoter (LAP): measures amount of hydrogen and deuterium which will help scientists understand the loss of water from Mars
  • Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA): Studies the neutral composition of the upper atmosphere
  • Mars colour camera: Takes images of the surface of Mars and its satellites Phobos and Deimos
  • Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer: Measures thermal emissions and helps map surface composition and minerals

"We are not really one country but two in one. And we need to do both things: contribute to global knowledge as well as take care of poor people at home."

K Radhakrishnan, chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), told the BBC's India Business Report: "Why India has to be in the space programme is a question that has been asked over the last 50 years. The answer then, now and in the future will be: 'It is for finding solutions to the problems of man and society.'

He added: "A great revolution has taken place over these last 50 years in the country by a meagre expenditure that has been put into the space programme."

Mr Radhakrishnan played down talk of a race between China and India in space, commenting: "We are not in a race with anybody, but I would say we are in a race with ourselves. We need to excel, we need to improve, and we need to bring new services."

But a successful launch would allow India to surge ahead of regional rival China, at least in the exploration of Mars. China's Yinghuo-1 spacecraft was to have reached Martian orbit in late 2012. But it was piggybacked on the Russian Phobos Grunt spacecraft, which became stranded in low-Earth orbit shortly after launch in November 2011.

The MOM was to have been launched as early as 28 October, but rough weather in the Pacific forced officials to postpone lift-off.

What ordinary Indians think of the country's mission to Mars

 

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  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 1515.

    I'm of Indian origin, born and raised in USA. My office workers and I are so surprised by the demeaning comments on this issue. Why is common Brit so anti-India? US media is presenting this news as a great achievement - especially the cost of the mission. Lowering space exploration cost benefits everyone!
    Shame on Brits for demeaning comments. Co-workers and I lost all respect for UK.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 1382.

    Incredible accomplishment for such a complex and diverse/populous nation. India must have had to overcome immense pressure/red tape from within and without.
    Their space program is only 50 yrs. old and has brought them and the rest of the world to a new juncture. To also be able to do what only the U.S., Russia and the EU have done successfully thus far.
    Remarkably India did it on shoestring budget

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 1368.

    We are just spending only 0.30 percentage of total budget in space program.We even spent more money than this for fire crackers in three days devali celebration in India only. And about that aid from Brittan, we dnt even know y u guys giving that . May be because of some business deal. The govt of india already told uk to stop it. Y dnt u guys take care of ur own already struggling economy.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1342.

    I spent about 3 months in India a couple of years ago and have to say this is quite disgusting. However, when we consider the money some countries spend on weapons, and how many billions the UK spends on the Royal family it's peanuts.

    There's always money when those with power need it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 958.

    Hello! The discussion seems to be going in wrong direction. Stop criticising each other. I am an Indian. I also do not like this kind of projects unless the Government clearly shows the advantages of this type of projects. I congratulate ISRO scientists for this great achievement and good luck for them. The thing is technology development should be used for industrial development in India.

 

Comments 5 of 16

 

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