India today launched its first spacecraft bound for Mars becoming the fourth space agency to do so following the United States, Russia, and Europe. Thousands of people gathered to cheer on the launch from the east-coast island of Sriharikota while millions of others watched it via live TV broadcast. Space agency officials described it as a textbook launch.


India fourth country to explore Mars

“Capturing and igniting the young minds of India and across the globe will be the major return from this mission,” mission director P. Kunhikrishnan said from the launch site.

Following the near three quarter of an hour rise into space, the orbiter broke away from its rocket and entered into an Earth orbit. Over the next three weeks, the spacecraft will undertake a number of technical maneuvers and short burns in order to raise its orbit.

“With teamwork and the kind of dedication we have today, any mission is not beyond our capability,” said S. Ramakrishnan, head of the space center and launch authorization board.

Mission will take almost a year

The orbiter Mangalyaan, which means “Mars Craft” in Hindi, will have a nearly one year journey before it enters into a Martian orbit next September. During that time the 3,000 pound Mangalyaan will travel nearly 500 million miles.

“The biggest challenge will be precisely navigating the spacecraft to Mars,” said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space and Research Organization. “We will know if we pass our examination on Sept. 24, 2014.”

The project was put together in a reasonably quick time frame with the agency only carrying out a feasibility study in 2010. The launch today came five years after the Indian space agency launched a lunar satellite. Last year during his annual address to the nation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the project to the public.

Mission did have its detractors

The launch did not come without controversy. Many Indians believe that the nation of 1.2 billion people shouldn’t be spending $1 billion annually on a space program while hundreds of millions live in abject poverty and struggle to keep their bellies full. The Mars orbiter and launch is believed to have cost $72 million. The Indian government, however, maintains that its space program is critical to the nation and provides a number of high-tech jobs for scientists and engineers.

“These missions are important. These are things that give Indians happiness and bragging rights,” said Raghu Kalra of the Amateur Astronomers Association Delhi. “Even a poor person, when he learns that my country is sending a mission to another planet, he will feel a sense of pride for his country, and he will want to make it a better place.” That said, its difficult to be too proud when your family is starving.

The orbiter is expected to have at least six months to investigate the planet’s landscape and atmosphere. At its closest point, it will be 365 kilometers (227 miles) from the planet’s surface, and its furthest point will be 80,000 kilometers (49,700 miles) away.