November 11, 2013
Credit: Indian Space Research Organization
The launch of India's first mission to Mars is a showcase for the nation's space program, which has high ambitions for its creative blend of scientific ingenuity and frugal engineering.
If India's first interplanetary mission succeeds in completing the 400-million-km (248-million-mi.) journey in the next 300 days, it will make India the first Asian country and the fourth in the world to conduct a mission to the red planet, a feat that would provide India a foothold in the race for the growing commercial space market.
The 1,350-kg (3,000-lb.) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), called Mangalyaan, set off on its 11-month odyssey to find methane, an indicator of life on Mars, with five scientific payloads. India's indigenous workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) proved its value on its 25th mission, sending Mangalyaan into orbit.
The mission's textbook launch comes a fortnight ahead of the liftoff of the U.S. Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (Maven), which will try to find out how Mars evolved from a warmer, wetter world into the barren planet of today (AW&ST Aug. 26, p. 40). Both missions are scheduled to insert into the Martian orbit on Sept. 21, 2014.
For India, the mission's budget price of $80 million is a point of pride. Maven's total cost will be $671 million, including constructing the spacecraft and paying for the Atlas V launcher and a year of operations on Mars. The U.S.'s 2011 “Curiosity” mission to the planet cost $2.5 billion.
“If India can make the world's cheapest car [the approximately $1,620 Nano car from Tata Motors] and the world's cheapest tablet [Akash, costing about $50], launching the cheapest Mars mission is no big deal,” quips an Indian space scientist.
The low cost is also essential given that India's space exploration budget is a tiny fraction of its $1.1 billion space budget. In contrast, NASA plans to spend $17.7 billion in fiscal 2013.