November 6, 2013
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle that carried Mangalyaan to Earth's orbit. Credit: Arun Sankar K/AP
After the Russians, Europeans and the US, India is on its way to be the next major player in space exploration to reach Mars.
Yesterday at 09:08 GMT at Shriharikota island, Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched the Mangalyaan, space orbiter that should reach Mars next summer, after travelling about 780 million kilometers. Its mission is to gather information regarding past and possibility of future life on Mars, but also to overtake China in regional space race.
China is India's main regional rival. Two biggest countries in the world, with over 1 billion people each, are also two fastest growing economies. Although they have peaceful, long-standing relationship, with China being India's greatest trading partner, the two have also had border disputes in the last century. This makes their space exploration rivalry as important as that of the US and the USSR in 20th century.
So far, China had the upper hand by launching a manned space mission in 2003 and placing a satellite in Moon's orbit in 2007. With Mangalyaan, meaning "Mars craft" in Hindi, India would beat their rivals and be the first of two to visit another planet.
The mission, however, is not a simple one. The craft, weighing 1,350 kg will first orbit around Earth. Then, after series of technical manoeuvres and short burns, it will raise its orbit and finally slingshot toward Mars.
"This is a very complicated mission but we have the capability to do it," says Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, the ISRO chairman. "We have developed new knowledge and we are very confident that we can achieve the navigation from earth to Mars accurately and properly."
Not everyone is happy about the launch. The mission that is supposed to make Indians proud was criticized for its cost. The 72 million dollar price tag may seem minuscule compared to some NASA's missions or India's own BDP, but India has high poverty rates and more than 40% of children in the country are malnourished.
That is the cost of national pride. As mentioned, the US and the USSR also had enormous space exploration budgets during the peak of the space race in 1960s and 1970s. Economies flourish and contract, but India will only have so many opportunities to be ahead of China when it comes to space exploration.