Rocket blasts off in India's bid to reach Mars

A TV screen grab shows the rocket carrying the Mars Orbiter taking off.

India launched its maiden mission to Mars in an effort to become the first nation in Asia to reach the Red Planet, and show the world how it can be done at a relatively low cost.

Hundreds of spectators watched what spaceport officials called a "textbook launch" on Tuesday (at 5.09pm, Singapore time) of a rocket carrying the unmanned 1.35 tonne Mars Orbiter named Mangalyaan - Hindi for vehicle to Mars - from Sriharikota, an island off India's south-east coast.

The spacecraft will orbit Earth for around 25 days before being flung at Mars in a "slingshot" manoeuvre. Its journey is expected to take around 10 months, in a complex mission that aims to measure Mars' atmosphere and map for minerals.

Scientists at the spaceport cheered and clapped as the rocket completed the first of many steps. "The journey has just begun... the challenging phase is coming," said Indian Space Research Organisation chairman K. Radhakrishnan.

"In September 2014, we expect this spacecraft to be around Mars and the challenge is to reduce velocity and get into orbit."

India hopes to steal the thunder from China, as their struggle for dominance in the region now reaches space.

"There was a 20th century space race between the US and Russia. In the 21st century, it's between India and China," said Mr Pallava Bagla, science editor with news channel New Delhi TV.

"In every aspect, China has beaten India. Here is an opportunity to race ahead. This is a mission replete with national pride."

The failure rate of Mars missions is high, however. China's 2011 mission did not even leave Earth's orbit. A 1998 attempt by Japan was damaged by a solar flare and abandoned in 2003. Only the United States, Europe, and Russia have sent probes that have orbited or landed on Mars.

While China has sent manned missions to space, India's space programme started in the 1960s, with satellite launches geared more towards improving satellite communication and remote sensing applications. They were aimed at managing everything, from forest cover to early warning systems for cyclones, which saved thousands of lives last month when a massive cyclone hit India's eastern coast.

More recently, India's focus has turned to space exploration, bolstered by a successful lunar probe that discovered evidence of water in 2009.

The entire mission is costing US$70 million (S$87million), while similar programmes by other nations have run into billions of US dollars.

"It is also a part of India's effort to position itself internationally as a space-faring nation," said Dr D. Raghunandan, a member of the Delhi Science Forum, a think-tank.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee congratulated the scientists behind the mission.

Mr Mukherjee called it "a significant milestone in the progress of our space programme and space applications".

Bharatya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi said: "India has once again established itself in the world."

But others cautioned that it is just a first step.

"There is a fairly long and tricky journey ahead," said Dr K. Kasturirangan, former chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation. "We hope it will finally reach its destination and conduct scientific experiments on Mars."

gnirmala@sph.com.sg

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