NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India launched its first rocket to Mars on Tuesday, aiming to reach the red planet at a much lower cost than successful missions by other nations, positioning the emerging Asian giant as a budget player in the latest global space race.
The Mars Orbiter Mission’s red and white striped rocket blasted off from the southeastern coast, streaking across the sky in a blazing trail, and is scheduled to orbit Mars by next September.
Probes to Mars have a high failure rate and a success would be a boost for Indian national pride, especially after a similar mission by China failed to leave Earth’s orbit in 2011.
Only the United States, Europe, and Russia have sent probes that have orbited or landed on the planet.
“The ISRO team will fulfill the expectations that the nation has in them,” said K. Radhakrishnan, head of the state-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), after the spacecraft was successfully placed into orbit around Earth. “The journey has only begun. The challenging phase is coming.”
India’s space program began 50 years ago and developed rapidly after Western powers imposed sanctions in response to a nuclear weapons test in 1974, spurring its scientists to build advanced rocket technology. Five years ago, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.
India’s relative prowess in space contrasts with mixed results in the aerospace industry. State-run Hindustan Aeronautics has been developing a light combat aircraft since the early 1980s with no success so far.
“The point is we don’t have the sound technological base for a car, forget about a fighter jet,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
The mission plans to study the Martian surface and mineral composition as well as search the atmosphere for methane, the chemical strongly tied to life on Earth. Recent measurements by NASA’s rover, Curiosity, show only trace amounts of it on Mars.
India’s space program has drawn criticism in a country that is dogged by poverty and power shortages, and is now experiencing its sharpest economic slowdown in a decade.
India has long argued that technology developed in its space program has practical applications to everyday life.
“For a country like India, it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” said Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and chief executive of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up. She argued that satellites have applications from television broadcasting to weather forecasting for disaster management.
The mission is considerably cheaper than some of India’s more lavish spending schemes, including a $340 million plan to build the world’s largest statue in the state of Gujarat.
Analysts say India could capture more of the $304 billion global space market with its low-cost technology. The probe’s 4.5 billion rupee ($73 million) price tag is a fraction of the cost of NASA’s MAVEN mission due to launch this month.
ISRO designed the craft to go around Earth six or seven times to build up the momentum needed to slingshot it to Mars, a measure that will help it save fuel, said Mayank N. Vahia, a scientist in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
It costs India about 1,000 rupees ($16.20) to put a gram weight into space, less than a tenth of NASA’s cost, he said.
India’s space program still has challenges, including the need to import components and the lack of a deep space monitoring system which means it will rely on the United States to watch the satellite once it nears Mars.
There’s much at stake in the global space business, where revenues for the satellite industry in 2012 was $189.5 billion, according to the U.S. Satellite Industry Association.
“Given ISRO’s broad portfolio of space capabilities, India could, if it does things right, get at least a quarter of (the space industry) market if not more in the coming decade or two,” said Earth2Orbit’s Mohanty.
India’s relations with its giant neighbor China are marked as much by competition as cooperation, and analysts say New Delhi has stepped up its space program because of concerns about China’s civilian and military space technology.
“The reality is that there is competition in Asia. There’s the angle of the potential space race,” said Rajagopalan.
Although India’s program is largely for peaceful purposes, it has increasingly realized the need to grow its deterrence capability after China’s 2007 anti-satellite missile test.
“That was a wake-up call for India,” said Rajagopalan. “Until then we were taking it easy.”
China’s space program is far ahead of India’s, with bigger rockets, more launches and equally cost-effective missions.
Officials dismissed the suggestion that India raced to prepare Tuesday’s launch to trump China’s failed attempt at Mars.
“We’re not in a race with anybody,” said ISRO spokesman Deviprasad Karnik, noting that the voyage can happen only every 26 months, when the spacecraft can travel the shortest distance between Earth and Mars.
“The mission to Mars has to be organized whenever there is an opportunity available.”
Editing by John Chalmers and Nick Macfie