India Prepares to Launch Mars Orbiter in Space Race With China

India is preparing to launch a spacecraft to Mars tomorrow, striving to put a probe into orbit around the red planet before China and Japan.

A rocket is scheduled to blast off at 2:38 p.m. from southeast India, embarking on a journey of 423 million miles (680 million kilometers) that will take almost a year, according to the Indian Space Research Organization. Only the U.S., Europe and Russia have successfully orbited Mars.

“There is an ongoing race for space-related power and prestige currently in Asia, although few officials will admit it,” said James Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, who has written books about the space race. “India is clearly concerned about China’s recent rise in space prestige and wants to minimize that damage.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has rebuffed critics of the mission, who say India can ill-afford the project’s 4.5 billion-rupee ($73 million) price tag when about two-thirds of the nation’s 1.2 billion people live on less than $2 a day. He’s counting on the space program to yield technological advances that bolster the country’s development prospects.

“Questions are sometimes asked about whether a poor country like India can afford a space program and whether the funds spent on space exploration, albeit modest, could be better utilized elsewhere,” Singh, who served on the country’s Space Commission in the 1970s, said in a speech last year. “This misses the point that a nation’s state of development is finally a product of its technological prowess.”

Martian Experiments

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. Earlier this year, India successfully launched a satellite that provides a space-based navigation system.

ISRO’s Chairman K. Radhakrishnan denied there was a space race with countries such as China, adding 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 $3.3 billion in Japan and $17.9 billion in the U.S. Japan failed in its 1998 bid to send a satellite to orbit Mars. China’s probe was destroyed about two years ago.

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.

Chinese Competition

“India is a major space power today, but it faces competition from countries such as China that have greater resources,” Moltz said. “It cannot expect to match China mission for mission. But it can develop a solid technical competency in space activities that will help its economy, military, and scientific potential.”

India’s Mars mission is much cheaper than a U.S. launch to the planet later this month, according to Mayank N. Vahia, an academic at the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.

Unlike China, which has sent astronauts into space, India has focused on less costly missions that provide technology for the aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors, he said.

The space program amounts to about half what India spends providing free school lunches and nutrition programs for the country’s 160 million children under the age of six. India has the world’s highest percentage of malnourished children except for East Timor, according to the 2012 annual Global Hunger Index.

Averting Disaster

Whether it’s right for a country with substantial poverty to invest in space exploration remains an emotive issue, said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

India launched its first space rocket in 1963 and its first satellite in 1975. An unmanned mission to the moon ended in August 2009 after scientists failed to restore contact with the Chandrayaan-1 craft. Data from the probe showed water formation may be an ongoing process on the moon.

The country’s satellites form one of the largest communications systems in the world. Last month, they tracked a cyclone heading for Odisha state in eastern India, giving the government time to evacuate a million people, according to Vahia.

“We invested in satellites that gave us the exact details of the way the weather was going,” Vahia said. “As a result, we have saved hundreds or thousands of lives.”

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