India Beats China to Mars Orbit at 11% Cost of U.S. Probe

Mars
Twelve orbits a day provide the Mars Global Surveyor MOC wide angle cameras a global "snapshot" of weather patterns across the planet. Source: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

A $74 million Indian spacecraft entered orbit around Mars today after an almost yearlong voyage, and for 11 percent the cost of the U.S.’s Maven probe.

Mangalyaan, or “Mars craft” in Hindi, made orbit after a trip of about 661 million kilometers (411 million miles), the Indian Space Research Organization said. The satellite is India’s first Mars mission and reached the red planet two days after the $671 million Maven craft.

“History has been created today,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wearing a red vest, said in a speech today at the ISRO’s office in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore. “We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible.”

India joins the U.S., Europe and Russia in orbiting Mars, giving Modi an opportunity to promote the country’s technological capabilities and lower costs to woo foreign investment. The South Asian nation is trying to keep up with China, which plans to complete a manned space station by 2022.

“This is a big step,” said Bangalore-based B.N. Raghunandan, a former chairman of the aerospace engineering department at the Indian Institute of Science. “People will see India as a destination for high-end projects. But there are a number of technologies in space, like human space missions, where we are nowhere near what China has done.”

‘Pride of Asia’

India’s 4.5 billion rupee ($74 million) mission seeks to map the Martian surface, study the atmosphere and search for methane gas, a sign that the planet can support life, according to ISRO, a government agency. India’s space program is the first to enter the Mars orbit in its first attempt, President Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement.

Mangalyaan, also known as the Mars Orbiter Mission, is expected to orbit Mars for six months and send data back to Earth until its fuel supplies are exhausted, according to ISRO.

“This is pride of India and pride of Asia and also is a landmark progress in humankind’s exploration of outer space,” the Press Trust of India reported, citing China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “So we congratulate India on that.”

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, has said that Maven will study the red planet’s upper atmosphere. NASA data shows about half the more than three dozen missions to Mars over the last five decades have failed, including Chinese and Japanese attempts.

“We congratulate ISRO for its Mars arrival! Mars Orbiter joins the missions studying the Red Planet,” NASA said in a Twitter post today.

Low-Cost Mission

Modi hailed India’s space program in June after witnessing the launch of a rocket carrying five foreign satellites, adding that the domestic industry is the world’s most cost-effective. India used a smaller rocket and payload to reduce costs, Modi said today.

“This mission costs less than it takes to make a Hollywood movie,” Modi said today. “These are the achievements that will go down as landmarks in history.”

He’s boosted annual spending on the program 50 percent to 60 billion rupees ($983 million), compared with about $17.5 billion in the U.S. That step effectively rebutted critics who argue a nation can ill-afford such projects when two-thirds of its 1.2 billion people live on less than $2 a day.

India 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 occurring.

Modi, who won a general election in May by a landslide after pledging to revive economic growth, is due to unveil a campaign called “Make in India” tomorrow as part a push to expand manufacturing in the $1.9 trillion economy.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE