Early this morning, on a small island near Chennai, India launched a rocket. The country has been doing that for a while now, under the authority of the Indian Space Research Organization. But what made this particular rocket special was the spacecraft it was carrying: Mangalyaan, or "Mars craft" in Hindi. The name explains the purpose: India wants to send a satellite to the Red Planet. That the country was able to successfully launch the rocket means that India is on its way to becoming the fourth nation in the world to get a ship to Mars, and it might just pull it off.
The Mangalyaan, also known as the Mars Orbiter Mission, successfully detached from its rocket, the Indian-made PSLV-XL, and is now in Earth. The first big test occurs over the next few weeks, when mission control in Bangalore has to conduct a series of maneuvers that will allow the Mangalyaan to slingshot to Mars, a process that is expected to take about 10 months with an expected arrival date of September 24, 2014.
What makes the Mangalyaan distinct from other Mars mission is the utterly scrappy nature of the Indian mission: The Mars mission only officially began with a feasibility study in 2010, after the successful launch of lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 in 2008. Going from feasibility study to launch in about three years is very fast by any space research standard, and shows some tenacity on the Indians' part. The satellite and launch itself cost $72 million. While the Mangalyaan is expensive by some standards, and the price tag has caused the mission to be criticized by some for not focusing on India's more pressing problems, it is worth noting that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA's leading Mars orbiter, cost 10 times as much to make and launch.
Only two other nations have successfully launched a satellite or other spacecraft to Mars: The former Soviet Union, and the United States. The European Union constitutes the third nation with a spacecraft over Mars with the Mars Express, and even that mission was a partial failure, due to the failed landing of the Beagle 2 rover. In fact, failure is a common theme with Mars missions: Of the 51 Mars missions conducted around the world up until now, only 24 have been considered successful, giving exploration of the Red Planet the nickname of the "Martian Curse." Russia and China's recent joint attempt, the Fobo-Grunt and Yinghuo-1, failed to even launch properly, causing them to fall back into the Earth a few months after launch.
India has a lot going against it, as Mars is a difficult business. But if it successfully gets Mangalyaan out to Mars, the implications of the country being the fourth to get a satellite out there will be huge, and show that the country has a lot more going for it than people believe.
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