India attempts first voyage to the Red Planet

Probe a first for India’s budding space program.

India has blasted off to the Red Planet, the eighth country in history to attempt the voyage. On November 5, the Mars Orbiter Mission lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, north of the southeastern city Chennai. This tiny probe is a part of the ongoing ‘second space race’ between India, China, Japan, and other Asian nations with emerging economies.

  The Mars Orbiter Mission, known informally as Mangalyaan, carries huge implications for India’s rapidly developing space program. Its space program started humbly in the 1960s with the launch of satellites tracking water sources, deforestation, and human settlement patterns. Since then, the space program has launched more than seventy satellites, and has been independent of other countries’ launching facilities since 1980. In 2008, the country reached a milestone: a successful lunar orbit probe. It was the first lunar mission to confirm the presence of water on the moon. This present mission to Mars is part of India’s rapid advancement as a space-faring nation.

Mangalyaan has a dangerous path ahead. Half of all attempted missions to Mars have failed. Seven space programs have attempted to reach Mars with unmanned missions; only the United States, the former Soviet Union, and European Union have succeeded.

The Mars Orbiter Mission has objectives in line with other recent Mars missions: seeking indications of past or present life on the planet. It will scan the Martian atmosphere for methane, a gas highly indicative to life as we know it on Earth. There is presently conflicting evidence for Martian methane: The European Space Agency announced in 2009 that its Mars Express satellite found atmospheric methane, but NASA’s Curiosity rover has so far not detected any. India’s space agency hopes to clarify the status of this gas in the Martian atmosphere.

This space mission has provoked significant criticism of India from around the world. Critics, primarily from western countries that provide aid to the country, contend that India is not justified in spending millions of dollars on an extraterrestrial mission that will not directly benefit its millions of poor and hungry citizens.

India’s space agency believes strongly that the mission benefits the country and its citizens. Mangalyaan is the cheapest Mars mission to date, and cheaper than many Earth-based space missions. At $72 million, it was considerably cheaper to make and launch than most Hollywood blockbusters, such as the recent space-thriller Gravity. Successfully reaching the Red Planet would lend credence to India’s space program, attracting investment and therefore economic development. Jitendra Gotswani, director of India’s 2008 lunar mission, believes that Mangalyaan would also be incredibly inspirational to all Indians, rich and poor. 

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