After its successful unmanned Chandrayaan mission to the Moon in 2008, which brought back the first-ever clinching evidence of the presence of water there, India is now eyeing the Mars.
The Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO is planning to launch a space mission to the Red planet later this year. The unmanned satellite, Mangalyaan, will study the thin Martian atmosphere and will take eight months to reach the distant planet.
The first model of the Mangalyaan was unveiled at the Indian Science Congress in Kolkata on Sunday. The Rs 450-crore mission will be launched from Sriharikota using the workhorse rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
There is deep strategic importance to the mission. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam underlined the importance of the project by saying, "Mars is international property, all the planets belong to the international community. It is essential to establish that we have done our job and our job has important scientific goals and we should do that only then we can say then that Mars belongs to us."
ISRO calls this small orbiting mission a technology demonstration project - the 1350 kilogram satellite will announce to the world that India has the capability to reach as far away as Mars. ISRO's Professor J N Goswami, lead scientist, Maangalyaan mission, said, "The mission is getting ready and the engineering models are ready and main Mars exploration instruments will be delivered by March-April and later they will be flown using the PSLV sometime in October-November."
Critics of the mission, however, believe the government is being profligate.
"We have heard these arguments since the 1960s about India being a poor country, not needing or affording a space program. If we can't dare dream big it would leave us as hewers of wood and drawers of water! India is today too big to be just living on the fringes of high technology," said a government official.
The government says the satellite which will be placed in an orbit around Mars will be able to carry nearly 25 kg of scientific payload on board. According to ISRO, the tentative objectives of the mission will be to focus on remotely assessing "life, climate, geology, origin and evolution and sustainability of life on the planet". "This is technology demonstration project, a mission that will announce to the world India has the capability to reach as far away as Mars," an ISRO official said.
Since 1960, there have been 44 missions to Mars with just about half of them being successful; attempts have been made by the former USSR and Russia, the US, Europe, Japan and China. The first Chinese mission to Mars called Yinghuo-1 failed in 2011 alongside the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission with which it was launched - so some believe that India is trying to march ahead in what has been described as the "Asian Space Race".