Frugal Mars mission launchpad for India in global space market

Frugal Mars mission launchpad for India in global space market

NEW DELHI - India's bid to become the first Asian nation to reach Mars sets a new benchmark for frugal interplanetary travel and puts it in a perfect position to grab more of the US$300-billion global space market, experts say.

"Everyone wants to do low-cost missions nowadays," Indian science author Pallava Bagla told AFP, adding, "Don't underestimate it because it is a low-cost mission."

The Indian Space Research Organisation - ISRO - staged a flawless launch last Tuesday of its Mars-bound spacecraft, loaded with a camera, an imaging spectrometer and a methane sensor to probe for life on the red planet.

The mission's price, a record low $73 million, "has been an eye-opener of sorts" for the world, Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and chief executive of Mumbai's Earth2Orbit, India's first private space enterprise start-up, told AFP.

That is not only because of the mission's meagre price when compared to its US counterpart, NASA's Maven, due to launch November 18 and costing 10 times as much but also because "the world was largely ignorant about the advanced nature of India's space programme", Mohanty said.

India already ranks among the top six space-faring nations in technological capabilities -- the others being the US, Russia, China, France and Japan, Mohanty said.

'Biggest bang for buck'

India's successful lunar orbiter mission in 2008 -- Chandrayaan-1 -- which cost $89 million got the ball rolling in showing how to carry out space exploration on a minimal budget and the Mars mission enhances its low-cost reputation.

"India's space programme has always given the biggest bang for the buck," said Mohanty.

The secret to the Indian space programme's trailblazing affordability -- ISRO has an annual budget of $1.1 billion, one-17th of NASA's -- has been "indigenisation of the programme which has helped keep costs low," ISRO spokesman Deviprasad Karnik told AFP.

"The launch vehicle -- the PSLV (the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) which is a workhorse -- and spacecraft are Indian," Karnik said. Also the pay scales of its scientists are far lower than in the West.

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