This morning at 09:08 GMT Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan, the country’s first spacecraft destined for Mars. Over the next 300 days, it will slingshot around Earth and travel to Mars to begin its science mission. If all goes well, Mangalyann (Hindi for “Mars craft”) should arrive around September 24, 2014 and ISRO will become the fourth space program to reach the red planet; only the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union have achieved this so far.
While orbiting Mars during its six month mission, Mangalyann will analyze the Martian atmosphere for methane, a critical chemical for life. Methane does not last very long in the atmosphere, meaning a continual source must come from the planet itself. While a large amount of methane on Earth is produced by microbes, it can also originate from volcanic activity which might be more likely for Mars. The orbiter will also seek to determine weather patterns and will hopefully find clues about where the once-abundant water on the planet’s surface has gone.
As with many space endeavors, some Indian citizens are questioning the importance of the $72 million mission. Nearly 68% of citizens in India live on less than US$2 per day, so many feel poverty eradication should take precedence over space exploration. This is a legitimate concern, but the mission actually stands to alleviate financial concerns.
A successful space program will advance India’s communication abilities though advanced satellites. Improved telemedicine will allow hospitals in remote areas to quickly connect with larger specialty hospitals, which can save lives. Advancing weather forecasting has the potential to save lives by better predicting storms coming in off the coast and can also be used to benefit agriculture. Improvements in technology could also create desperately-needed jobs, boosting per capita income.
The space program is also remarkably efficient: the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) developed in India that launched Mangalyaan into space has successfully completed 23 out of 25 launches, which equates to a 92% success rate. The current Mars mission was developed and launched in a mere 15 months, making today’s launch all the more impressive.
ISRO has 58 mission planned during the 2012-2017 time span, involving 33 satellites and 25 launch vehicles.