India and China Move Ahead in the Asian Space Race

Engineers working on the Mars orbiter at the Indian Space Research Organization in Bangalore Photograph by Aijaz Rahi/AP Photo

It’s been a rough year for the government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Economic growth has cratered and the currency has wobbled. The Hindu nationalist party just clobbered Singh’s Congress Party in state-level elections and opposition leader Narendra Modi is the favorite to replace Singh in nationwide elections in the first half of 2014.

Amid all the gloom, Singh and the rest of India just received some much-needed good news. The country has an ambitious program to explore space, and today the government-run mission control announced that India’s first mission to Mars had cleared a major obstacle on its way to the Red Planet. The Mars Orbiter, informally dubbed the Mangalyaan, successfully carried out its first Trajectory Correction Manoeuvre (TCM), the Indian Space Research Organization said on its official website. That keeps the Mangalyaan on track to reach Mars by September next year.

India’s Mars probe (PDF) is the country’s entry in an Asian space race; for those of you keeping score, the Indians win points for aiming farthest. Japan in September launched the Epsilon rocket, designed to be an inexpensive way to put satellites into earth orbit. China is shooting for the moon, having launched its first lunar rover mission on Dec. 2. South Korea in January launched its first space rocket and last month unveiled plans for a lunar mission (albeit one that won’t launch until 2020).

Give the Chinese credit, though, for coming up with the best name. The Japanese unimaginatively named their rocket after a Greek letter. Almost as dull, India’s nickname for the Mars craft, “Mangalyaan,” is just Hindi for—wait for it—”Mars Craft.” And South Korea’s rocket is named after the island on which the country’s space center is located. China’s lunar probe is the Chang’e 3, named after the goddess who lives on the moon, and the probe’s lunar rover is the Yutu (Mandarin for Jade Rabbit), her pet.

The Chang’e 3 successfully passed a major test yesterday, entering an elliptical orbit that’s taking it as close as 15 kilometers from the moon’s surface. The probe “is expected to land on the moon in mid-December, and will be China’s first spacecraft to soft-land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body,” the official Xinhua news agency reported today.

Getting the Mangalyaan to Mars would be a nice way for India to trump the Chang’e 3. For now, Chinese media aren’t impressed. Reporting on the Mangalyaan’s launch, the Xinhua curtly noted that getting to Mars is a challenge. “The mission’s success can be assessed only when the spacecraft reaches the Martian orbit on September 24, 2014,” the Chinese news agency said. “But, there are many risks as no country till date has succeeded in reaching Mars on its maiden attempt.”

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