India Gets Its Shot At History Tonight As Their Mangalyaan Spacecraft Approaches Mars
For the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the events of the next 24 hours will arguably be the biggest in their 52 year history. In the early hours of September 24th 2014, their Mars Orbiter Mission - also known as Mangalyaan - will complete a journey of more than 420 million miles and attempt to enter Mars orbit. After NASA's MAVEN spacecraft successfully made its way to achieving a similar feat earlier this week, many may struggle to see where the big deal is. But as anybody at NASA will be quick to point out, successfully placing a spacecraft in orbit around our planetary neighbour is a massive achievement, and even more so for an organization such as ISRO.
To date, there have been 22 attempts at achieving Mars Orbit. Of those 22 missions, only 11 can be considered to have either succeeded or partially succeeded. Granted, this 50% success rate is somewhat skewed by the many failed attempts between the 60's and 80's, but if Mangalyaan does successfully enter Mars orbit, it would be a monumental achievement considering ISRO's resources.
At $1.1 billion, ISRO's budget is a significant one, but when compared to the likes of NASA ($18.4bn), Roscosmos ($5.6bn) and ESA ($5.1bn) it is easy to see why a successful Mars orbiter mission will be such a huge feat for India and its largest space agency. Indeed, the Mangalyaan mission itself has cost a paltry $75m, which is just 7 cents per person of it's significant population. MAVEN on the other hand has a budget of almost $700m.
But despite the relatively low cost of ISRO's lofty ambitions, many have called into question the logic in investing more than $1bn into space-based projects when there exist such major issues on their doorstep. Almost three quarters of India's population lives on just $2 per day and the gap between the country's poorest and richest inhabitants is widening. Poverty and hunger levels in India are some of the worst in the world, so when it was announced that ISRO would be investing in an ambitious mission to Mars, there were understandably widespread cries of outrage.
ISRO representatives remained unfazed in the face of criticism, claiming it was something they needed to do to put their country on the map of world superpowers. "If we succeed (in the mission), it positions India into group of countries who will have the ability to look at Mars," said ISRO's Chairman, Dr K. Radhakrishnan. "In future, certainly, there will be synergy between various countries in such exploration. That's taking place. That time India will be a country to be counted." And, while this will be no consolation to those who oppose the project, the Mangalyaan mission is, according to Radhakrishnan, "the cheapest interplanetary mission ever to be undertaken by the world."
Tonight, the Mangalyaan team will begin a 24 minute rocket burn in order to slow the spacecraft down and allow it to catch the planet's gravity. If the rocket burn fails in any capacity, it is likely that Mangalyaan will not slow down sufficiently to stop it from shooting beyond Mars, becoming lost in space. If successful though, Mangalyaan will commence a 6 month mission to search for traces of methane in Mars' atmosphere. But these scientific measurements only represent Mangalyaan's secondary goal. It's primary goal is simply to make it into Mars orbit successfully and showcase India's credentials as a world space power.
If ISRO succeed tonight, they will not only become just the fourth agency to reach Mars, they'll also be the first agency evert to achieve the feat at the first attempt, something that will no doubt prompt a few understandably smug glances to their neighbors in China.
To see if India can make it into the history books, tune into ISRO's live webcast of the insertion which is expected to begin at around 9:50pm (EST) tonight.