India heads to Mars with budget space mission

It may be cheap at HK$568m, but work-around launch may add to success of 2008 mission

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 12:42pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 3:49am


India has begun the countdown to launch its most ambitious and risky space mission to date - sending a probe to Mars, a project conceived in just 15 months on a tiny budget.

After a 2011 Russian-Chinese attempt flopped, India is seeking to make a statement of its technological prowess by becoming the first Asian power to reach the Red Planet more than 200 million kilometres away.

An unmanned probe, weighing 1.35 tonnes and about the size of a large refrigerator, will leave earth strapped to an Indian rocket which is set to blast off from the southeast coast tomorrow afternoon.

Wrapped in a golden film, the orbiter will carry advanced sensors to measure the Martian atmosphere, hoping to detect traces of methane that could help prove the existence of some sort of primitive life form.

"Any interplanetary probe is complex. As we can see for Mars, there were 51 missions so far around the world and there were 21 successful missions," the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), K Radhakrishnan, said.

Undeterred by the failure rates, he laughed off any suggestion of last-minute nerves, saying: "If it is a failure, then learn. Failure is a stepping stone for success."

Success would be a source of national pride for Indians, whose 2008 unmanned mission to the moon helped prove the existence of water in another leap forward, 39 years after Neil Armstrong set foot there.

It would also bolster the reputation of India, the land of the world's cheapest car, as a leader in low-cost innovation. The project was announced in August 2012 with a budget of only 4.5 billion rupees (HK$568 million).

Lacking a rocket large enough to fire the satellite directly out of earth's atmosphere, ISRO has also had to rely on another famed Indian specialism, Jugaad, or a contrived, cheap, work-around solution.

Instead of flying directly, the 350-tonne rocket will orbit earth for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from the earth's gravitational pull.

"Don't underestimate it because it is a low-cost mission that is being done for the first time," Indian science journalist Pallava Bagla, author of the book Destination Moon, said.

"Yes, there is Jugaad in it, there is innovation in it ... and everyone wants to do low-cost missions nowadays."

Nasa is under budget pressure and has faced cuts to proposed Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 despite having an overall objective, set by US President Barack Obama, of sending an astronaut there by 2030.

The United States is the only nation that has successfully sent robotic explorers to land on Mars, the most recent being Curiosity, a nearly one-tonne vehicle which touched down in August 2012.

One of its discoveries appeared to undercut the purpose of the Indian mission after a study published in September revealed Curiosity detected only trace elements of methane in the Mars atmosphere.

Nasa will help ISRO with ground monitoring from three deep-space facilities after the launch at 5.38pm Hong Kong time. The American space agency will send its own probe, Maven, 13 days later.

The official countdown for blast-off of the Indian orbiter, nicknamed "Mangalyaan" in local media, began yesterday, which was the start of the Hindu festival of lights known as Diwali.

Only the US, Russia and the European Union have succeeded in reaching Mars before. In 2011, a Russian probe carrying hi-tech equipment developed by Hong Kong and mainland scientists, veered off course in what Chinese experts called at the time a "disastrous misstep".

Engine failure appeared to be the cause. Japan's effort floundered in 2003.