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

  • 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.


  • 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.

Archive: People in India told the BBC what they thought of the mission


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  • Comment number 1313.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1312.


    ahh, the irony of shameless racism and bigotry from ex colonialists who plundered, raped and screwed India's economy and left us with nothing apart from a few railway lines and some infrastructure

    No-one starves in Hong Kong, which is without the sub continent's huge natural rescourses. But of course they were lucky enough to have the British around for a another 50 years.

  • Comment number 1311.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 1310.

    I'm just so outraged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1309.

    The real problem here isn't British aid to India which is tiny, but the fact that India is doing something Britain can't. India doesn't need British aid but Britain needs India: who owns Jaguar Land Rover? Who owns what was once British Steel? India is showing it can compete with the world in the most advanced technology. The British can't tell India what to do any more and it hurts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1308.

    What some are failing to realize is that it is becoming increasingly crucial for mankind to have a presence in space. As Earth's resources dwindle the only option open to us is to develop space tech to a level where we can begin prospecting for minerals in space which are essential for our continuing a civilisation. If not we face a slow decline into obscurity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1307.

    Indians should be proud of this feat, if they have any pride left of their country. What is surprising that rich people spend millions of dollars in the wedding of their kids to show off but when it comes to event like this, worms come out of the woodwork to criticize. Maybe they should ask Sharukh and the like to help the unfortunates instead of helping them grease their pockets!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1306.

    Dear British friends,

    There is so much Anti-Indian hatred still active in Britain.
    When Britain was running empire in the world they couldn’t provide fresh water to their citizen in the UK. The Maharajas helped to dig a well in the Uk.
    Please read this

  • Comment number 1305.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1304.

    There are many benefits for India having a space programme including encouraging technological developement, potential income generation and national pride, alongside scientific benefit. India has many social challenges to address but this programme shouldnt have to take away from aid. Note UK is to stop aid to India by 2015 - better in my mind that we encourage trade and investment!

  • Comment number 1303.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1302.


    Bad way to go dude, if it wasnt for indians in this country the economy would be much worse off. You sound like you want to implement some emigrants kick out plan like they have done in serveral african states inc zimbabewe which then suffered herendously.
    Britiain's economy is dependent on hard working intellegent BRITISH Indians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1301.

    Indian govt and the people of India should rip off the so called Great Britain till it sucks every little penny out of them for all the riches and resources the cunning British Stole! HAHAHA!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1300.

    There of course are a number of English people commenting here who should be ashamed of their attitudes concerning the development of other nations.

    That doesn't justify the number of ex/Indian nationals commenting here who shame their culture & country by their lack of world knowledge, basic economics, their own country and their history, not to mention their threats of ancient revenge. Grow up

  • Comment number 1299.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1298.

    Do something about this centuries-old-ceremony-in-gujarat-has-cows-walking-all-over-men latest Mars mission.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1297.

    ahh, the irony of shameless racism and bigotry from ex colonialists who plundered, raped and screwed India's economy and left us with nothing apart from a few railway lines and some infrastructure (all of it which was meant for plundering, not charity) and 31 year life expectancy and blood on their hands.

    Thanks for reminding us "ohh so generous" meagre aid, which we have already refused.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1296.

    "When are the Romans going to give back the goods they pillaged from the UK... and saving the world at least twice from mad world dictators... we are owed a huge debt by the whole world."

    And indeed royalties for football and televisions? However: we did give them Thatcherism so I suppose we got our own back in the end...

    (but then: they gave us Bollywood...)

  • rate this

    Comment number 1295.


    It is the inability of dying UK and failure of Beagle 2,prompting the self hate to be expressed here. Get a life, ex-colonialists

    The difference is of course that people don't die of hunger on our streets like they do on yours. We tend not to have beggars who maim their own children so they can feed themselves either. Perhaps you should give those people a life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1294.

    Don’t understand why we all fighting on who did this at what cost? More disappointing to see the level of racial /discriminatory remarks in name of patriotism and sponsorship.If there is merit in US/UK sending men to mars so is there when India does the same. What would be ideal to see if there is synergy in all this spend. India should not be spending millions in re-inventing wheels.


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