India reaches for Mars on prestige space mission

India reaches for Mars on prestige space mission
A scientist works on the Mars Orbiter vehicle at the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) satellite centre in Bangalore, on September 11, 2013.

NEW DELHI - India began a countdown Sunday to the launch of its most ambitious and risky space mission to date, sending a probe to Mars which was conceived in just 15 months on a tiny budget.

After a recent 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 south-east coast on Tuesday afternoon.

Wrapped in a golden film, the orbiter will carry advanced sensors to measure the Martian atmosphere, hoping to detect traces of methane which 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," chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), K Radhakrishnan, told AFP last Thursday.

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 ($73 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 of "Jugaad" - confecting a 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", told AFP.

"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.

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