National Geographic News
Photo of India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25), carrying the Mars orbiter.

India launched its first rocket to Mars on Nov. 5, aiming to put a satellite in orbit around the red planet at a lower cost than previous missions and potentially positioning the emerging Asian nation as a player in the global space race.

Photograph by Stringer, Reuters

Andrew Fazekas

For National Geographic

Published November 6, 2013

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.

National Pride

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.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

43 comments
Douglas Fonacier
Douglas Fonacier

India's million-dollars space program is better spent for the upliftment of their hungry and impoverished citizens. It's a useless endeavor because it just duplicates what the Americans are now doing. Better leave space exploration to highly industrialized countries like the US.

Jayadeep Chellath
Jayadeep Chellath

We are poor and we eat only one meal. Any way can you please tell those stupid Christian missionaries to fund our NASA so that we can actually feed our people with three meal. If not don't send them to us and it is really annoying to listen to the crap on the roadside.  Do not act like we asked you to send them to deliver meal. Or if you are really worried about poor we can ship them to your country so that you don't have to worry about poor.

Kieth La Quata
Kieth La Quata

why spend millions dollars for Mars and not here on earth

Paul Duke
Paul Duke

With any luck we'll all be working as one in the near future.

United we will succeed on earth and in our quest to explore the universe and beyond.

I wish the mission great sucess and look foward to exciting new finds next year.

Kapil Kale
Kapil Kale

Its great to see India's contribution to the world for future mars exploration. Its the Indian peoples money and their wish to send the Mars explorer to Mars, it is a fact that India has poverty , but then space exploration is also a priority for everyone in India just like the rest of the world. You or me , are not paying for this mission so don't feel bad about it and even if India were not going to mars its not going to solve the poverty in India nor any other place in the world. I definitely agree NASA will help in this mission and its a good thing that's happening, American and Indian obiters scanning Mars together , I hope many more countries get involved in this and I am sure they will. God Bless The World .

simon simon
simon simon

Without support from US, ISRO can't go that far.

indrajeet m.
indrajeet m.

India can afford the cost of mars orbiter mission, & also dealing with hunger & all things ... 

So instead of criticising, look at the benefits of the mars orbiter mission to the hole human community.

Lorraine G. Swinton
Lorraine G. Swinton

I am not surprised, at all. I know that they have the capacity to do anything.

Ruben Sainz Beltran
Ruben Sainz Beltran

yes that's what they really need to do.... talking about having priorities in order..

the most dysfunctional society in the world.. where only a very very small percentage of the population has all the wealth...

dave crow
dave crow

Its like playing poker, they have a terrible hand and are going all in, while their kids are starving.

Ramesh Mehta
Ramesh Mehta

For a knowledge based economy, application of science & technology to solve massive problems that india faces is the right way to go, I think.

Ramanan000 T
Ramanan000 T

@Kieth La Quata Good question. Why don't YOU ? Practice before you  preach !

Shehin Pv
Shehin Pv

@simon simon 

what you think maan...

the pentium processors----a very successful chip that gave life to the machine was invented by indians.......

many of the technological guys behind the scene are  from india or (some other asian-(japan too))......

what you thik? haaaa

you just applying the things that are discovered or invented by others..........

indrajeet m.
indrajeet m.

@simon simon Actually US don't share there technology with others.

But because of more than 30% of scientists in nasa are indians, so there is little bit possibility.     

Devbrat Singh
Devbrat Singh

@Ruben Sainz Beltran For you it may be the most dysfunctional society in terms of wealth distribution but the best in secularism, best in democracy and moreover best messenger for peace and harmony.

Ramanan000 T
Ramanan000 T

@Ruben Sainz Beltran  Oh i see you have your priorities in order, don't you? Your national debt is 14 Trillion and growing, while Congress cuts food stamps for millions of poor children all over the U.S.  Why don't you fix your dysfunctional government before pointing fingers at others? I realize that your  racist arrogance has been shaken to the core by the rapid advance of Asian nations. Your reaction is completely understandable.

Manoranjan M
Manoranjan M

@Ruben Sainz Beltran Just now you received warm steaming horse**** on your full face thanks to Mr. Snowden. You talk about dysfunctional society. First clean your belly button mate, correct your out-of-control dysfunctional government, ask for freedom, free eduction and health care, which is worst among developed nations.

Remember,1984, Orwell? Yeah? Now, go back to your beer, baseball, TV, reality shows. Add to that list, whine fest and belly aching.

Why did you even subscribe to NatGeo with this IQ, b******* and bickering.

But, what happened to NatGeo, why it even needs a comment section for its articles. And, why this article even got published. If it's a scientific article, let it stick to scientific details.

Lok Sakthi
Lok Sakthi

@Ruben Sainz Beltran , Just couple of weeks back ISRO weather satellite forecast saved at least 10000 Indian lives from Cyclone Philine. 

p. koul
p. koul

Dear Ruben , have u ever lived in India ? before claiming something ,have the correct information. 


John Nikson
John Nikson

@dave crow  

Every country in this world has poverty, it doesn't mean that country have to stop all tech progress, look at USA figures, 40% of ppl are dependent on food stamps in either way , and earns less than $20k per year. 

Daryl Johanssen
Daryl Johanssen

@dave crow 

"After a certain point, money is meaningless.  It ceases to be the goal.  The GAME is what counts."

"The secret of business is to know something that nobody else knows."

The late Aristotle Onassis

KK13 M
KK13 M

@Ramanan000 T Indians have the same issues like the some Americans: ARROGANCE.

His question was about Gov. of India spending $73M. If he had that money, he wouldn't be posting here. Although you will still be churning out cranky replies like other Indians, and feel you did a great job. Did he ask a poor question? NO.

But we have to always come up with a rhetoric, as if we are the greatest by subduing someone's quest. Either be nice and answer like a literate or a gentleman, or go post on TOI. Even better, 'get-a-life' option may work for you.

KK13 M
KK13 M

@Ramanan000 T Indians face the same problem like the Americans: ARROGANCE. Did he ask a bad question? NO. But we have to always come up with a rhetoric, as if we are the greatest, and by answering something stupid, may make us feel great. His questions was about Gov. of India spending $73M. If he had that money, he wouldn't be posting here, but you will still be churning our cranky replies like other Indians. Get a life!

KK13 M
KK13 M

@i. memane @simon simon What's this, patriotism? It doesn't work that way. No, there in 0% possibility in sharing data, unless it's unclassified or declassified. Either you sign an MOU, or you don't share.

KK13 M
KK13 M

@Manoranjan M @Ruben Sainz Beltran And what makes you think he is from the US, again? Patriotism is good, but your related yammering is bovine stupidity.

Why do you guys apply for US visa and live on US$? India is still a mediocre nation - it's true, so what's the harm in accepting the fact. You guys pretend that being an IT laborer in US companies is the greatest job in the world - which it isn't. Do you know your country's economic situation? Stay put, because the storm is brewing, wait for 2016.

And I say this being a neutral citizen. Keep fighting and showing off. Accept faults, where faults are due. There's no harm in that.

And stop comparing everything with the US. Why don't you try to compare with Germany? Because you know, you won't even stand a chance any sector, you dumb***k.

Parvati Joshi
Parvati Joshi

@Lok Sakthi @Ruben Sainz Beltran  

just to nitpick you it was close to 5 million population indian govt had shifted to safe places in wake of phaline.If we look at USA's casualty figure in wake of katrina i must say that india did a commendable job All thanks to ISRO and MET dept..I think it was a record of a sort to move 5 million people to safe shelter at short notice.

Shehin Pv
Shehin Pv

@p. koul 

i like that.......

Ruben --when you get time ......just visit india...

india is not pakistan


KK13 M
KK13 M

@John Nikson @dave crow Where did you get that "40% live on food stamps" number from? Indians, and making up their Bollywood stories.. lol

indrajeet m.
indrajeet m.

@Ruben Sainz Beltran @Ramesh Mehta My country have 80% problems, like population hunger.... & we are(india) dealing with those. I know you are superpower(america), but u also have at least 5% problems, so try to solve those...

KK13 M
KK13 M

@Parvati Joshi @Lok Sakthi @Ruben Sainz Beltran Other countries learnt from Katrina, including US (during last year's Sandy). Katrina was more powerful. There was no dirth of data during Katrina, the Bush government failed to act in timely fashion. Well, Cong. worked (they had to) because election in nearby.

How many people did we lose in the last 20 years due to natural calamities? So 1 success doesn't count much compared to 50 failures, because we are still far behind. For some unknown reason we have this obsession always to compare with the US. Instead, India should do her job irrespective of other countries.

Still, I would say India did a commendable and exceptionally well job to save lives, this time.

Shehin Pv
Shehin Pv

@Parag Kolekar 


parag------corruption-------tats true 


100%---those moTh******* fuc**** politicians ruins our land


KK13 M
KK13 M

@Parag Kolekar @Ruben Sainz Beltran @John Nikson @dave crow Correct! That's the best answer I have heard over here. Corruption is in most of the democratic countries, but in India it is practiced shamelessly and by all - from Peon to PM. Everyone is corrupt to the core, otherwise, India could have been a Japan or Germany easily, by now.

Parag Kolekar
Parag Kolekar

@Ruben Sainz Beltran @John Nikson @dave crow 

The real problem of India is corruption. They can spend lot of money more than spent on mars mission to empower the poor people. But only poor people help the politicians to stay in the power. Politicians don't want to let it happen. Besides these constraints Indian scientists are doing their best. So you should blame politicians and have praise the scientists for their exceptional achievement while others failed in first attempt.

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