Friday 26 September 2014

India becomes first Asian nation to reach Mars orbit

Success of Mars mission a big boost in nation's bid to keep up with China
The Straits Times, 25 Sep 2014

BANGALORE - India has won Asia's race to Mars, with its unmanned Mangalyaan spacecraft successfully entering the Red Planet's orbit after a 10-month journey on a tiny budget.

Scientists at mission control broke into cheers as the gold-coloured craft manoeuvred into the planet's orbit at 8.02am yesterday (about 10.30am Singapore time) following a 660 million km voyage.

"History has been created. We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible," a jubilant Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) base near Bangalore.

"The success of our space programme is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation," said Mr Modi, hugging the ISRO's chairman.

The success of the mission, which is designed to search for evidence of life on the Red Planet, is a huge source of national pride for India as it competes with its Asian rivals for success in space.

India has been trying to keep up with neighbouring giant China, which has poured billions of dollars into its programme and plans to build a manned space station by the end of the decade.

At US$74 million (S$94 million), the mission cost is less than the estimated US$100 million budget of sci-fi blockbuster Gravity. That figure also represents just a fraction of the cost of NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, which successfully began orbiting the fourth planet from the Sun on Sunday.

India now joins an elite club - made up of the United States, Russia and Europe - that can boast of reaching Mars. More than half of all missions to the planet have ended in failure, including China's in 2011 and Japan's in 2003.

No single nation had previously succeeded at its first go, although the European Space Agency, which represents a consortium of countries, also pulled it off at its first attempt.

Now that Mangalyaan has reached Mars, the probe is expected to study the planet's surface and scan its atmosphere for methane, which could provide evidence of some sort of life form.

Mangalyaan, which means "Mars vehicle" in Hindi, is carrying a camera, an imaging spectrometer, a methane sensor and two other scientific instruments.

Indian engineers employed an unusual "slingshot" method for Mangalyaan's interplanetary journey, which began when it blasted off from India's southern spaceport on Nov 5 last year.

Lacking enough rocket power to blast directly out of Earth's atmosphere and gravitational pull, it orbited the Earth for several weeks while building up enough velocity to break free.

Critics of the programme say a country that struggles to feed its people adequately should not be splurging on space travel.

But supporters say it is the perfect opportunity to showcase India's technological prowess as well as a chance for some one-upmanship on its rival Asian superpower.


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