India vies for elite role in space with Mars trip

Nov 04 2013, 15:12 IST
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ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan holds a model of Mars orbiter at his office in New Delhi. (AP) ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan holds a model of Mars orbiter at his office in New Delhi. (AP)
SummaryIndia is aiming to join world's deep-space pioneers with a journey to Mars that it hopes will showcase its technological ability.

India is aiming to join the world's deep-space pioneers with a journey to Mars that it hopes will showcase its technological ability to explore the solar system while seeking solutions for everyday problems on Earth.

With a Tuesday launch planned for Mangalyaan, which means "Mars craft" in Hindi, India will attempt to become only the fourth country or group of countries to reach the Red Planet, after the Soviet Union, United States and Europe.

"We have a lot to understand about the universe, the solar system where we live in, and it has been humankind's quest from the beginning," said K Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space and Research Organization.

India sees its Martian mission primarily as a "technology demonstration," Radhakrishnan said. "We want to use the first opportunity to put a spacecraft and orbit it around Mars and, once it is there safely, then conduct a few meaningful experiments and energize the scientific community."

Radhakrishnan admits the aim is high. This is India's first Mars mission, and no country has been fully successful on its first try. More than half the world's attempts to reach Mars — 23 out of 40 missions — have failed, including missions by Japan in 1999 and China in 2011.

If India can pull it off, it will demonstrate a highly capable space program that belongs within an elite club of governments exploring the universe.

Mangalyaan is scheduled to blast off Tuesday from the Indian space center on the southeastern island of Shriharikota, the start of a 300-day, 780 million-kilometre (485 million-mile) journey to orbit Mars and survey its geology and atmosphere.

Five solar-powered instruments aboard Mangalyaan will gather data to help determine how Martian weather systems work and what happened to the water that is believed to have once existed on Mars in large quantities. It also will search Mars for methane, a key chemical in life processes on Earth that could also come from geological processes. None of the instruments will send back enough data to answer these questions definitively, but experts say the data are key to better understanding how planets develop geologically, what conditions might make life possible and where else in the universe it might exist.

Some of the data will complement research expected to be conducted with a probe NASA will launch later this month, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, nicknamed MAVEN.

"We're pulling for India," said Bruce Jakosky, project leader for the U.S. spacecraft.

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