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India vies for a place in space with satellite mission to Mars

The 1,350-kilogram orbiter is expected to reach its designated orbit Sept. 24, 2014, and will be joined above Mars by a U.S. satellite



NEW DELHI—India is aiming to join the world’s deep-space pioneers with a journey to Mars it hopes will showcase its technological ability to explore the solar system while seeking solutions for everyday problems on Earth.

With a Tuesday launch planned for Mangalyaan, which means “Mars craft” in Hindi, India will attempt to become only the fourth country or group of countries to reach the Red Planet, after the Soviet Union, United States and Europe.

India sees its Martian mission primarily as a “technology demonstration,” said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space and Research Organization.“We want to use the first opportunity to put a spacecraft and orbit it around Mars and, once it is there safely, then conduct a few meaningful experiments and energize the scientific community.”

Radhakrishnan admits the aim is high. This is India’s first Mars mission, and no country has been fully successful on its first try. More than half the world’s attempts to reach Mars—23 out of 40 missions—have failed, including missions by Japan in 1999 and China in 2011.

If India can pull it off, it will demonstrate a highly capable space program that belongs within an elite club of governments exploring the universe.

Mangalyaan is scheduled to blast off Tuesday from the Indian space centre on the southeastern island of Shriharikota, the start of a 300-day, 780 million-kilometre (485 million-mile) journey to orbit Mars and survey its geology and atmosphere.

Five solar-powered instruments aboard Mangalyaan will gather data to help determine how Martian weather systems work and what happened to the water that is believed to have once existed on Mars in large quantities. It also will search Mars for methane, a key chemical in life processes on Earth that could also come from geological processes.

Some of the data will complement research expected to be conducted with a probe NASA will launch later this month, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, nicknamed MAVEN.

“We’re pulling for India,” said Bruce Jakosky, project leader for the U.S. spacecraft. “The more players we have in space exploration the better.”

India’s $1 billion-a-year space program has helped develop satellite, communication and remote sensing technologies that are being used to measure coastal soil erosion, assess the extent of remote flooding and manage forest cover for wildlife sanctuaries. They are giving fishermen real-time data on where to find fish and helping to predict natural disasters such as a cyclone that barrelled into India’s eastern coast last month. Early warning information allowed Indian officials to evacuate nearly a million people from the massive storm’s path.

Indian scientists also have led at least 30 research missions to Antarctica, despite being nearly 12,000 kilometres (7,500 miles) from the icy continent. They are working to expand mineral mining in the deep sea, designating that as a priority area for scientific research. And in 2008-09 the Indian Space and Research Organization successfully launched a lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, which discovered evidence of water on the Moon.

The 1,350-kilogram orbiter is expected to reach its designated orbit Sept. 24, 2014, and will be joined above Mars by MAVEN.

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