India began its first mission to Mars, seeking to beat China to the red planet and showcase the South Asian nation’s push for technological development.
A rocket blasted off at 2:38 p.m. local time from southern Andhra Pradesh state carrying a satellite that Indian scientists plan to put into orbit around Mars, a feat only the U.S., Europe and Russia have achieved. The journey of about 423 million miles (680 million kilometers) will take almost a year, according to the Indian Space Research Organization.
“In September 2014 we expect this spacecraft to be around Mars, and the challenge then is to precisely reduce the velocity and get into the orbit,” ISRO’s Chairman K. Radhakrishnan said after the launch. Accomplishing the mission would be a turning point for the country, he’s previously said.
Mangalyaan, which means “Mars craft” in Hindi, is orbiting the Earth initially before heading to the red planet to investigate the Martian surface and atmosphere. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has rebuffed critics who say a poor country such as India can ill-afford the project’s 4.5 billion-rupee ($73 million) price tag, arguing that technological advances bolster development prospects.
About half of the more than three dozen missions to Mars over the last five decades have failed, according to NASA.
The mission aims to map the Martian surface, study the atmosphere and search for methane gas, a sign that the planet can support life, according to the ISRO, a government agency.
Radhakrishnan said there would be a “trickle down” of technology from the research and design of the orbiter that will benefit the economy.
India spends about $1.1 billion a year on its space programs, compared with $17.9 billion in the U.S. Japan failed in its 1998 bid to send a satellite to orbit Mars. China’s probe failed about two years ago.
Two-thirds of India’s 1.2 billion people live on less than $2 a day. The country has the world’s highest percentage of malnourished children except for East Timor, according to the 2012 Global Hunger Index.
The nation launched its first space rocket in 1963 and its first satellite in 1975. An unmanned mission to the moon that ended in 2009 showed water formation there may be ongoing.
India and China have become competitors in the space industry over the past decade. China has taken the lead, putting its first woman astronaut into space as it strives toward goals such as establishing a manned space station. India’s satellites form one of the largest communications systems in the world.
While few officials will admit it, there is a race for “space-related power and prestige” in Asia and India is concerned about China’s rise, according to James Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.