Indian mission to Mars blasts off
India's first mission to Mars blasted off successfully yesterday, completing the first stage of an 11-month journey that could see New Delhi's low-cost programme win Asia's race to the red planet.
A 350-tonne rocket carrying an unmanned probe soared into a slightly overcast sky on schedule at 2.38pm local time, monitored by dozens of tense-looking scientists at the southern spaceport of Sriharikota.
After 44 minutes, applause broke out around the control room when navigation ships in the South Pacific reported that the spacecraft had successfully entered orbit around earth.
Indian Space Research Organisation chairman K. Radhakrishnan allowed himself a smile, slapped a colleague on the back and announced he was "extremely happy" that the first objective had been reached.
At the end of the month, once enough velocity has been built up by the spacecraft as it circles our planet, "the great, long, difficult voyage will start" to Mars, he said.
"In September 2014, we expect this spacecraft to be around Mars and the challenge then is to precisely reduce the velocity and get it into an orbit," he explained in comments broadcast by state television.
The country has never before attempted interplanetary travel, and more than half of all missions to Mars have ended in failure, including China's in 2011 and Japan's in 2003.
The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as "Mangalyaan" in India, was revealed only 15 months ago by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, shortly after China's attempt flopped when it failed to leave earth's atmosphere.
The timing and place of the announcement - in an Independence Day speech - led to speculation that India was seeking to make a point to its militarily and economically superior neighbour, despite denials from ISRO.
The gold-coloured probe, the size of a small car, will aim to detect methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could provide evidence of some sort of primitive life form on Mars.
President Pranab Mukherjee congratulated ISRO and called yesterday's launch "a significant milestone". The cost of the project is estimated at 4.5 billion rupees (HK$562 million).