• Thu
  • Oct 2, 2014
  • Updated: 4:02pm

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.


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So lets get this straight, a nation where hundreds of millions of people are in abject poverty with no access to decent schooling, sanitation or water is spending huge sums of money on a space programme? This in a nutshell is why India will never become a truly developed nation and highlights the cultural and political problems there. Having lived in India, I was dismayed at how badly the 'middle class' citizens treated those less fortunate than them and the level of poverty, with seemingly no way for those affected to break the cycle, was truly heartbreaking.
Relji Joseph
India is a country which is divided into 28 States and 7 Union Territories. Each state is responsible for its own development. You cannot blame India as a whole for poverty or sanitation or illiteracy. If your leaders or yourself couldn't bring a change in your state, don't have your shame carry on the entire shoulders of the community. There are several states which are well developed, well educated and not much of poverty and trust me when I say this , it is not because the state is blessed with natural resources. It is the attitude and hardwork which led to growth of many states in India. If you see Gujarat, you already know ( oh now I'm a modi supporter) , you see Kerala you know it better and several other proud states I could name here. India as whole is shining, some states are not and unfortunately they are displayed on top and middle of the map geographically. Indian Central Government is rich is its resources and is and should continue to invest in such technological advancement programs to bring ahead India's name and with regards to your issues in certains states of india ( if including yours), take it to them personally and fix it the way you can than shaming the entire nation. India is the biggest democracy in the world with the people with most different ethnic and language barriers, dont you bring your shame as a shame of everyone in that country. I'm from a proud middle class family from India.
Sorry but this response is typical of the problems facing India and a reason why it won't change. Easier to push the responsibility onto others than to take ownership and tackle it.
For your information, I've visited several states and also lived in Hyderabad and Pune, both considered leading cities, and witnessed the same abject poverty and lack of basic infrastructure. The poverty may not be as bad as it is in cities like Agra but it is still bad.
The government has a duty to provide basic services to it's people and India is failing in this. Serving your own people should come before any ridiculous space programme which is just to put on a show to other nations.
As for largest democracy in the world, is it really a democracy when there's so much rampant corruption and votes are often 'bought' with the promise of gifts such as TV's etc?
Just wondering. Being a proud middle class Indian, have you ever shaken the hands of a dalit not to speak of inviting one home to dinner? OR having a sibling marry one? Be honest.
Relji Joseph
now I'm been asked typical indian stereotype questions... I grew up in a society where caste system exits but it didnt hinder their growth, I had people from all backgrounds in my school and neighbourhood ...yes unfortunately some were poorer than others, but it didnt stop them from getting proper education. In the state of Kerala, the dalit community fancy free education and they utilize it well. I still remember my close friend ( his father was a IPS or a similar high ranking officer) collecting monthly stipend on a monthly basis from the college accounts, because the government pays for his education and pay s for his expenses even when he was 10 times wealthy than many upper caste students, so please dont throw the dalit card at me. And my siblings found someone they love, I think that was the only think important to our family. BTW when I say I'm a proud middle class family, one of my grandfather was a farmer, other served army and my dad served 12 years in military, my grandmother finished her matric those days, my mom was graduate and I'm a graduate myself. Our standard of living was not always high, we earned whatever we are now and I'm proud of the strong heritage... and I have friends from all religion and caste who are welcome to my house as I'm welcome to theirs. We celebrate Eid, Diwali, Xmas and all other festivals in the same spirits.


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