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.

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


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1533.

    no one thinks of how india became poor, but talks lot abt giving some aid to india which serves the poor, for the reason, india sent a rocket to mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1532.

    India has more then $70M of money. It is not an either or situtation. Its a matter of will. I do appreciate the great will we showed in developing this space program. I hope they show a similar will to deal with the countless other issues people are quoting. This is NOT done at the expense of someone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1531.

    This story was bound to raise a lot of comments. Congratulations and well done to the aerospace of India! You know you can't stop progress and it is good to see that the cost was staggeringly low by Euro/American standards.
    As someone has pointed out it will help to reduce the cost of space exploration.

  • Comment number 1530.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1529.

    The basic rationale for such fancy projects is- if you cannot solve socio economic issues of the country then overdoes ignorant common people with "patriotism". It'll also serve interests of opportunist middle class who may get jobs & "pride" to boast about, which is so lacking for developing countries, including North Korea.

    Every section of vote bank is happy.

    National interest? What is that?

  • Comment number 1528.

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

  • Comment number 1527.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1526.

    They say: "We are not in a race with anybody, but I would say we are in a race with ourselves."
    Ah yes, seeking a new route to India.
    Where have I heard that before?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1525.

    What an oddly inconsistant reaction from the world community had this been Iran that launched a mission to Mars the US and Israel would have been alarmed and shrieking about Iran's ability to deliver a 'bomb' worldwide and yet no one says that nuclear armed India should not have such launch vehicle capability. Congradulations India! Indians are smart people and touche to haughty NASA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1524.

    India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is a budget affair compared to Nasa's venture. MOM is costing around US $40 million (£25 million) compared to the US $671 million (£418 million) for Maven. Even ESA's Mars Express (that carried the failed Beagle-2) cost considerably more at US $185 million (£115 million) ten years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1523.

    Britain spends £70m on fireworks each year to be blown up on November 5th, of no scientific benefit.

    And the bigots come here to condemn India £45m for a space mission to Mars.


  • rate this

    Comment number 1522.

    willing to bet that of the 1516 posts 90% are about out aid program to India , and its uses lol. maybe we could ask Nigel if he,d stop it or increase it .


  • rate this

    Comment number 1521.

    @ 1504.Walk the Warwick Road

    oh eh why thank you old chap, but when i get onto SOUTH WEST TRAINS every night they always have delays because british trains dont run right in cold weather! Should out source to India and get some quality steel, what say old fart!? maybe tend to your sour grapes too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1520.

    @ 1512. Spock

    "Aid? surely it's less than the shocking amount of Visa fee Indians and overseas visitors have to pay to come to the UK!"

    It's because they don't go back; not because they come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1519.

    For those who comment about the aid to india, just imagine your queen elizabeth is wearing a crown with a precious stone stolen from india called kohinoor. your whole country become developed by robbing india any doubt in that? india was the richest region in the world before british colonization. how india became so poor? talking abt ur aid to a poor country without thinking how it became poor.

  • Comment number 1518.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1517.

    @sue wright - funny how you use "they" and racist in the same sentence !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1516.

    London is full of homeless people living in the streets, crime on all fronts. But its okay to spend £40billion plus on a rail track, waste over £100's of millions on failed gov schemes and the country under a record debt!..£46mil this cost - UK bankers have made more money by destroying the economy! India has to Govern over a billion people, UK have 50 million and still cant get it right..

  • rate this

    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

    Comment number 1514.

    #1508 It easy to say Britain was better than other colonisers. You simply compare our colonies in Africa to those of France, Spain and Portugal. Ditto Asia. Where would you rather live? British Kenya or Portugese Mozambique?

    You might also remember that when India demanded independence we shot off with indecent haste. We didn't try a Vietnam or Algerian war like the French would


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