The race to Mars is heating up with India's successful launch Tuesday of its first mission to the red planet. (See also "Video: Mission to Mars.")
The rocket carrying the robotic orbiter called Mangalayan, which means "Mars craft" in Hindi, thundered into space at 9:08 a.m. GMT from India's Sriharikota island spaceport. It successfully deployed its solar panels 44 minutes later.
Mangalayan's 485-million-mile (780-million-kilometer) trip to the red planet will take the better part of ten months and end on September 24, 2014. The spacecraft will then attempt to go into orbit.
The launch underlines the growing prowess of Asia's space-faring nations, such as China and Japan, that have notable space programs under way.
India's space agency, the India Space Research Organization (ISRO), hopes the Mars mission uncovers the secrets behind the disappearance of the red planet's seas several billion years ago, while observing its current-day weather.
Equipped with five scientific instruments, Mangalayan will also attempt to map potential sources of methane gas that have been detected in the past on the red planet.
On Earth, methane is produced both by living creatures and by geological processes.
On to Mars
Coming close on the heels of this week's Indian mission will be NASA's own Mars orbiter launch scheduled for later this month. Called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission), the NASA mission will collaborate with the Indian spacecraft.
NASA has also agreed to provide communications and tracking of India's Mars spacecraft through its Deep Space Network.
"Mangalayan and MAVEN can make similar observations at different locations at the same time, helping to separate out time-varying from spatially-varying phenomena," said MAVEN team leader Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"The most important aspect is that the Mars environmental system is very complex, and Mars science knows no international borders, and so scientists will take the measurements and utilize them in order to paint an integrated picture of how Mars works," he said.
Against the Odds
Martian exploration is a risky business, however, since more than half of all missions sent there—23 of 40 spacecraft—have been lost. And what must be even more daunting for India is that no country has made it on the first attempt, as neighboring Asian nations Japan (1999) and China (2011) can attest.
India faces the same challenges that every country or space agency does, says Jakosky, since the probes have to navigate through an extremely harsh and unforgiving environment.
"Ten thousand things need to work properly in order to succeed, and only one needs to not work properly in order to fail," he added.
"We ask a lot of the spacecraft that we send to Mars, and we are pushing the envelope in terms of what we can expect them to do."
Revealed only 15 months ago, the Mars mission is the most ambitious yet for India, which has been pushing hard to expand its space program over the past decade.
India launched its first Earth satellite back in 1975, and most recently sent a robotic orbiter called Chandrayaan-1 to the moon in 2008. That probe helped discover the finding that water ice can exist on the lunar surface.
ISRO is already working on follow-up missions that will include a new set of lunar robotic landers and rovers and a possible first human spaceflight, all launched before this decade is out.
The mission may be humble compared with those of NASA, but it is of great pride for the East Asian country, says Pallava Bagla, one of India's leading science analysts.
"While the mission is modest, the spacecraft is made in India by Indians and launched on an Indian rocket from Indian soil," said Bagla in an email. ISRO is looking to now build on the success of its lunar orbiter and showcase its robotic space exploration abilities.
So while neighboring superpower China appears to be focusing its space efforts on human spaceflight, India is emerging as a leader in scientific and robotic space missions.
Amid its battles with widespread hunger, poverty, and an ailing economy, some have criticized India's expenditure on this audacious planetary mission—which is estimated to be around $73 million.
Whether it's forecasting storms and mitigating floods or bolstering communications in remote regions of the country, says Bagla, India's space program from its inception has always been about solving down-to-Earth problems facing the common man.
India vies to be a global power, and its space program is a step in that direction. India's technology prowess is equivalent to that of developed countries, explained Bagla.
"But India also understands it has to uplift its millions out of poverty, and towards that, India's [space] program contributes heavily," he said.