India joins space elite with mission to Mars

On its first attempt, India has put a satellite into orbit around Mars. It is an outstanding achievement. But is a space programme a luxury for a nation with so many problems on earth?

There were 20 tense minutes at mission control as the explorer satellite Mangalyaan disappeared behind Mars and beyond contact. Then, out of the silence, a signal came across 400 million miles, confirming that Mangalyaan was fine and had entered orbit 420km above the red planet. As one the team leapt, cheered and hugged each other.

All India is celebrating the phenomenal achievement of sending a satellite into orbit around Mars. Of the 51 missions to the planet, fewer than half have succeeded, yet India managed it on its first attempt. ‘It’s like hitting a golf ball from Bangalore to London and getting it into the hole in one go,’ a team member said.

Reaching Mars puts India among the space elite of Russia, the US and the EU. Yet it has arrived there much more cheaply. The Indian Space Research Organisation (IRSO) mission cost £44m, almost a tenth of NASA’s MAVEN mission which reached the planet just days earlier. As the country’s prime minister Narendra Modi joked, it was even cheaper than making the space blockbuster movie, ‘Gravity’.

He has congratulated IRSO and all of India, saying ‘History has been created by our scientists. We have dared to reach out into the unknown’.

Mangalyaan will soon begin analysing Mars’s surface and atmosphere. It is thought that it may once have had Earth-like features, such as rivers and lakes. Yet what made Mars’s atmosphere change is one of science’s biggest mysteries.

But regardless of what is discovered, the mission is a fantastic advertisement for IRSO. India has already launched satellites for countries from Algeria to Singapore. Now the world has seen what its cheap, dependable space capabilities can do, India hopes to become the leader in low cost satellite technology.

Shoestring space travel

Critics, in India and elsewhere, say that while its space programme may be relatively cheap, with more than 300m citizens living on less than a pound a day, India should concentrate on problems closer to Earth. Floods are still devastating the country’s north and its water supply and sanitation are poor. The space programme is a shallow attempt to distract people from India’s troubles.

Yet others say such views are patronising and possibly racist. All countries have problems, but no one tells the US that NASA’s $17.5 billion budget could be better spent clearing up after hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy. India is already a computing superpower and its Mars success is a huge boost to its technical and science-based industries. The programme’s cost will be more than covered by the business it brings. The best way to eradicate poverty is economic growth.

You Decide

  1. Has India’s Mars mission proved its worth or would the money have been better spent elsewhere?
  2. Should every country copy India and have its own space programme?

Activities

  1. Form groups and choose a country. You are in charge of its budget. List at least six areas which you should budget for, such as heath, education and transport. Choose what percentage to spend on each. Would you have a space programme?
  2. Imagine you are either India’s prime minister or one of its poorest people. Write a diary entry describing your feeling at hearing the news of the Mars mission. Would you feel happy, inspired, angry, or have mixed feelings?

Some People Say...

“India will become a superpower this century.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about India’s space programme?
Commentators say it shows how the world is changing and that other countries outside the West will be making a huge contribution to mankind’s scientific advancements this century. India’s Mars mission also shows how we are increasingly pushing the frontiers of science and space.
Why is this such an achievement for India?
Space success brings prestige. In the 1960s, space exploration was dominated by the superpowers, the US and the USSR, but now India and China are showing their abilities too. They have comparable populations, but China’s economic growth has outstripped India’s in the last 20 years. Yet India has beaten China in this space race.

Word Watch

Mangalyaan
Hindi for ‘Mars vehicle’.
Maven
Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft. MAVEN will explore Mars’s upper atmosphere. It is much more expensive than Mangalyaan partly because its monitoring equipment is more sophisticated.
Floods
The atmosphere of Mars is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s and is 95% carbon dioxide. Some scientists hope to find traces of methane gas in it, because this would be a major clue towards whether the planet once supported life.
Katrina
More than 270 people were killed earlier this month when floods hit the part of Kashmir controlled by India. In the last few days at least ten people have died as floods hit the northern states of Assam and Meghalaya.

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