India Mars Mission Under Way, Despite Odds


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India seeks to join the United States and the former Soviet Union in a singular space exploration achievement: sending an unmanned probe to Mars successfully. India's space agency (ISRO) hopes to demonstrate their nation's capacity to reach the orbit of the Red Planet and carry out some experiments of their own.

The 300-day journey is successful less than half of the times it has been attempted. CNN noted in their report that a Japanese Nozomi orbiter failed to reach Mars in 1998. Other failed attempts include the UK's Beagle 2 probe in 2003 and a Chinese probe that was sent as part of the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission.

The BBC spoke with Prof. Andrew Coates of University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, who said "I think this mission really brings India to the table of international space exploration. Interplanetary exploration is certainly not trivial to do, and [India] has found some interesting scientific niches to make some measurements in."

ISRO hopes to learn about Mars' watery past and search out sources of methane gas where NASA's Curiosity rover may have failed. Telescopic detection of methane gas in Mars' atmosphere cause scientists to suspect an as-yet-undetected source of methane, and since atmospheric methane on Earth is partially produced by microbes, some would suggest the possibility that a biosphere is buried on Mars.

Some have criticized India's space-faring direction, but chief Oxfam executive Nisha Agrawal told the BBC that "India is home to poor people but it's also an emerging economy, it's a middle-income country, it's a member of the G20. What is hard for people to get their head around is that we are home to poverty but also a global power... We are not really one country but two in one. And we need to do both things: contribute to global knowledge as well as take care of poor people at home."

The first Indian satellite was launched into Earth's orbit in 1975. In 2008, ISRO shot an unmanned probe into the moon's orbit, and the first manned Indian space mission is planned for 2016, although the "first Indian in space" trophy goes to cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma, who flew aboard a Soviet flight in 1984.

Here is footage of the probe launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on India's east coast:

[Image via this YouTube video of the launch]