(Adds reference to China's moon mission; paragraphs 5,6)
By Shyamantha Asokan
NEW DELHI Dec 1 India's first mission to Mars
left Earth's orbit early on Sunday, clearing a critical hurdle
in its journey to the red planet and overtaking the efforts in
space of rival Asian giant China.
The success of the spacecraft, scheduled to orbit Mars by
next September, would carry India into a small club, which
includes the United States, Europe, and Russia, whose probes
have orbited or landed on Mars.
India's venture, called Mangalyaan, faces further more
hurdles on its journey to Mars. Fewer than half of missions to
the planet are successful.
"While Mangalyaan takes 1.2 billion dreams to Mars, we wish
you sweet dreams!" India's space agency said in a tweet soon
after the event, referring to the citizens of the world's
second-most populous country.
China, a keen competitor in the space race, has considered
the possibility of putting a man on the moon sometime after 2020
and aims to land its first probe on the moon on Monday.
It will deploy a buggy called the "Jade Rabbit" to explore
the lunar surface in a mission that will also test its deep
space communication technologies.
China's Mars probe rode piggyback on a Russian spacecraft
that failed to leave Earth's orbit in November 2011. The
spacecraft crumbled in the atmosphere and its fragments fell
into the Pacific Ocean.
India's mission showcases the country's cheap technology,
encouraging hopes it could capture more of the $304-billion
global space market, which includes launching satellites for
other countries, analysts say.
"Given its cost-effective technology, India is attractive,"
said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, an expert on space security
at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in Delhi.
India's low-cost Mars mission has a price tag of 4.5 billion
rupees ($73 million), just over a tenth of the cost of NASA's
latest mission there, which launched on Nov. 18.
Homegrown companies - including India's largest
infrastructure group Larsen & Toubro, one of its
biggest conglomerates, Godrej & Boyce, state-owned aircraft
maker Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd IPO-HIAE.BO and Walchand Nagar
Industries - made more than two-thirds of the parts
for both the probe and the rocket that launched it on Nov. 5.
India's probe completed six orbits around Earth before
Sunday's "slingshot", which set it on a path around the sun to
carry it towards Mars. The slingshot requires precise
calculations to eliminate the risk of missing the new orbit.
"Getting to Mars is a big achievement," said Mayank Vahia, a
professor in the astronomy and astrophysics department of the
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.
India's space agency will have to make a few mid-course
corrections to keep the probe on track. Its next big challenge
will be to enter an orbit around Mars next year, a test failed
in 2003 by Japan's probe, which suffered electrical faults as it
neared the planet.
"You have to slow the spacecraft down once it gets close to
Mars, to catch the orbit, but you can't wait until Mars is in
the field of view to do it - that's too late," Vahia said.
India launched its space programme 50 years ago and
developed its own rocket technology after Western powers levied
sanctions for a 1974 nuclear weapons test. Five years ago, its
Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.
By contrast, India has had mixed results in the aerospace
industry. Hindustan Aeronautics has been developing a light
combat aircraft since the early 1980s, with no success.
The Mars probe will study the planet's surface and mineral
composition, besides sniffing the atmosphere for methane, a
chemical strongly tied to life on Earth. NASA mission Curiosity
did not find significant amounts of the gas in recent tests.
China is still far from catching up with the established
space superpowers, the United States and Russia, which decades
ago learned the docking techniques China is only now mastering.
Beijing says its space programme is for peaceful purposes,
but the U.S. Defence Department has highlighted China's
increasing space capabilities, saying it was pursuing ways to
keep adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.
(Additional reporting by Krishna N Das in NEW DELHI and Sumeet
Chatterjee in MUMBAI; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)