Giant leap

India has made a historic leap into a new space age with the successful launch of the Mars Orbiter from Sriharikota with its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on Tuesday.

Mangalyaan marks another important step in the country’s ambition to reach out to worlds outside the earth after the success of the Chandrayaan mission which took it to the moon in 2008. The lunar mission raised the country’s profile among space-faring nations but the trip to Mars is much more challenging. Few missions to the red planet have been successful till now. Out of 51 spacecraft that have travelled to the red planet till now only 21 reached its orbit 55 million km away from the earth. The Mangalyaan orbiter will traverse 400 million km because its route is not straight.  A Chinese mission to Mars two years ago was a failure as the spacecraft did not leave the earth’s orbit.  A Japanese mission some years ago was also  a failure. The Indian craft has a long way and time to go before it reaches Mars and accomplishes its mission objectives.

Only the US, the European Union and Russia have achieved successful Mars missions till now. The very launch will raise India’s stature by demonstrating the country’s capabilities in space technology. There are commercial benefits also that will accrue from a successful mission but more important is the scientific and engineering expertise the country will gain from the venture. ISRO has been planning and preparing for the mission for years. If the moon mission proved a success by confirming the existence of water there, the aims of  the Mars mission are different. The most important objective is to look for the presence of methane gas in the planet. Methane is an indicator of life and if it is found it would mean  that life exists or once existed in some form on the planet.

There is a view that the Rs 460 crore venture is a waste of money and of the time and expertise of scientists and engineers. This is a wrong notion because such missions and their successful completion, or even failures, are valuable investments in future. Their worth cannot be judged even in terms of immediate mission aims. There is a race for space among all major powers of the world and intra-planetary exploration may turn out to be as important in history as the western powers’ maritime conquests centuries ago. India cannot be left behind.

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