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Indian spacecraft on course to enter Mars orbit

24 september 2014, 14:33
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A father and his son look at information about planet Mars on a poster put up at the Nehru Planetarium as a special preview on India's Mars Orbiter Mission. ©AFP
A father and his son look at information about planet Mars on a poster put up at the Nehru Planetarium as a special preview on India's Mars Orbiter Mission. ©AFP

  India is on course Wednesday to become the first nation to reach Mars on its first attempt, a historic feat that aims to showcase the country's home-grown and low-cost space technology, AFP reports.

After a 10-month journey, India's Mars Orbiter Mission, also called Mangalyaan, is scheduled to make some final complicated manoeuvres before entering the Red Planet's orbit after 7.30am (0200 GMT) on Wednesday.

"We are gearing up for the crucial operation to insert the spacecraft into the Martian orbit by firing the main engine," mission director M. Annadurai told AFP on Tuesday.

"Everything is going on smoothly as programmed and the spacecraft's health is normal," Annadurai, from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said.

If India manages to pull off the mission, it joins an elite club of the United States, Russia and Europe.

But the mission is a risky one, with more than half of all attempts to reach Mars ending in failure. And no single nation has succeeded on its first go, except for that of the European Space Agency, representing a consortium of countries.

India's unnamed probe plans to study the planet's surface and scan its atmosphere for methane, which could provide evidence of some sort of life form.

  Low-cost space prowess 

But experts say the mission's main aim is to showcase India's low-budget space technology and hopefully snatch a bigger share of the $300-billion global space market.

At just $74 million, the mission costs just a fraction of NASA's MAVEN spacecraft which successfully began orbiting the fourth planet from the sun on Sunday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was expected to join scientists at ISRO mission control near the southern city of Bangalore for the spacecraft's orbit entry.

The nationalist premier, who stormed to power in May on a pledge of reviving India's economy, has hailed the mission's low cost, saying it was less than the budget for the Hollywood blockbuster "Gravity".

"It's a low-cost technology demonstration," said Pallava Bagla, who was written a book on India's space programme.

"The rivalry between regional giants China and India exists in space too and this gives India the opportunity to inch ahead of China (and capture more of the market)," Bagla told AFP.

India has so far launched 40 satellites for foreign nations, since kickstarting its space programme five decades ago. But China launches bigger satellites.

On Wednesday, ISRO scientists will rotate the gold-coloured craft, about the size of a small car, further towards Mars before firing up its main engine for its insertion into the orbit.

The probe is expected to circle Mars for six months, about 500 kilometres (310 miles) from its surface. Its scientific instruments will collect data and send it back to Earth.

Confidence is high at ISRO after scientists successfully "woke up" and tested the probe's main engine on Monday, following its launch last November.

Critics of the programme say a country that struggles to feed its people adequately and where roughly half have no toilets should not be splurging on space travel.


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