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 1513.

    Imagine a nation with half a billion destitutes and clearly the biggest producer of methane on earth, mocking a nation that spends £11bn per annum on foreign aid and £7bn net to Europe to prop up the poorest countries,just because they send a 30 year out of date firework to mars... to look for methane . Comical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1512.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1511.

    1453. by ALC seems to be correct. It seems only the educated Indians are in favour of the Mars explorer rather than help the poorest countrymen. Perhaps the reason is their backward & highly racist treatment of the Dalit (untouchables) who can be killed without fear of legal retribution. They actually fail to notice the suffering of the poor individuals & have the gall to criticise the British!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1510.

    1484. timberwolfman it's funny how you talk while sipping afternoon tea, may be you were the one watching merrily Jimmy Saville on TV? India's issues are probably higher compared to UK but don't you have social issues? all this happened in BBC and took decades to uncover the truth, your police use dead children's identities for undercover operations. Malaise is spread within Britain too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1509.

    To all those complaining about the cost. Don't worry. In another 50 years India will have caught up with us and will then spend its money on football, celebrates and shopping instead of science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1508.

    1490. Peter_Sym

    And none of it changes what British actually did. That's what the point is. Even if there had been many kingdoms, they would have eventually settled, and not wounded like it was due to Britain.

    I don't know how you can say that British were better than other colonizers? The history is bare in front of you to see that they were not. Sure, agree it was inevitable due to infighting

  • rate this

    Comment number 1507.

    I'm not sure what Indian policy makers & its scientists in ISRO want to achieve (even in the long run) by such copycat projects.

    India still has the largest hungry people in the world, poverty is worse than Sub-Saharan Africa, public health care practically non-existent, agricultural productivity is among the lowest, basic education ruined- yet waste huge money for such irrelevant projects!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1506.

    Great, next thing India will use its resources to feed its starving people, or is this not on the agenda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1505.

    Little do your enlightened citizenry know that the so called "aid" is a gift to your military industrial complex .

  • rate this

    Comment number 1504.

    2 Minutes ago
    @1471.Walk the Warwick Road

    Yes and stronger than the oppressor now too, have a biscuit.


    I may well do so old boy. Enjoy the railways what what.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1503.

    More than 1500+ comments on India's Mars mission! and 1300+ comments on UK economy.

    I am Gob Smacked that we care more about what is happening in India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1502.

    1461. hyken
    1441. Peter_Sym

    No country in the world would have inflicted wounds to India like the British did.


    We will never know as your statement is hypothetical.

    However ask the Koreans/Chineese how they faired under the Japanese, Or the Japanese under Chineese or the British under the French/Danish/Swedish/Romans.

    Look forward not backward!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1501.

    Good luck to succeed to reach the other planet, however if they take care of their minorities and women on this planet, it will be a big achievement indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1500.

    India don't care about presence of Methane in Mars. It is the same kind of investment India made for Software Industry. Invest in education, create the talent pool, display the talent and create the industry. India is eying the $450 billion rocket industry. If they can cut the cost to a one tenth, countries will outsource their rocket launching to India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1499.

    India celebrates this Diwali with Success of Mission Mars (PSLVC-25)

  • rate this

    Comment number 1498.

    @1471.Walk the Warwick Road

    Yes and stronger than the oppressor now too, have a biscuit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1497.

    I hope they don't have any guidance computer problems - by the time the technical support guys have sorted them out, it'll be half-way to Jupiter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1496.

    GEN BOX@1473 We cant have been that genocidal mate , there are ove a billion Indians, and that not counting those in the Indian diaspora. And at the risk of repeating myself, millions of those same Indians fought for the UK in 2 World Wars. FULLMONTY are you ok mate, towering over us, both nations riddled with corruption, with billions of starving people and destroying the environment,

  • rate this

    Comment number 1495.

    I wonder how many of those criticising India for this venture, are campaigning against the government's HS2 vanity project whilst the UK has seen the emergence of food banks and are currently freezing the elderly and poor, not energy prices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1494.

    christian charities are not needed in india they are needed in usa and south america. black christians in usa face discrimination, hunger and disease


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