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Mars beckons, India answers

India is poised to take a historic leap as a big league player in global space industry with its Mars Orbiter Mission, the indigenously produced and designed Mangalyaan (Marscraft) that is slated to roar off from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, on 5 November, in order to study the surface and atmospheric composition of the Red Planet. Other than the fact that Marscraft will look for signs of life in the fourth member of the solar system, what is of immense significance is the pace, scale and cost of the entire project conducted by the Indian Space Research Organisation, almost on its own.

As some commentators and space science experts have already pointed out, ISRO’s escalated space programme, the country’s first interplanetary probe, is not just a brilliant demonstration of India’s domestic technological proficiency, dedication and innovation, as well as interest in upscaling the research and development quotient, it is also a shining example of ‘low cost space programme’ that is suited for developing and the less developed economies with ‘astronomical ambitions.’ Frugal engineering apart, what India has shown the world is that it is possible, by sheer grit and determination, to overcome the malaise of  technology denial, ritually practiced by the US and Europe in the wake of 1977 nuclear tests under the aegis of then prime minister Indira Gandhi. It is obvious, therefore, that the Rs 450-crore mission is not only a resounding pat on India’s own back, it is also symptomatic of a new, resurgent India that is focused on expanding its industrial and scientific horizons without being stymied by financial or technological constraints.
 
The 5 November blast-off of Mangalyaan will also mark the silver jubilee of the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV), and the spacecraft is supposed to go around earth for roughly 25 days before starting off on a 300-day, 780-million-kilometre journey to the Martian orbit until it reaches its destination in September 2014. If the mission is successful, and a lot depends on the launch itself, India will lodge itself comfortably in the group of the space elites, becoming the fourth power to reach the red planet, after Russia, United States and Europe, in fact, overtaking China in its quest for some ‘astrocolonial’ glory. Evidently, India might flounder in its first attempt, since no country or entity has so far managed to clinch it in the first go. However, it is unlikely that a setback would deter ISRO from future attempts, perhaps within a year or two, if not less. Moreover, since India has been making strides in the space research and technology arena, with moon expeditions in its kitty, the Mars mission is another gamble that is more rewarding than risky. Not only will ISRO gather invaluable data on Martian geology and atmosphere, looking for methane and other signs of life, it will also further our understanding on how planets and life evolved through billions of years. Truly, in India’s success now lies global interest, since space exploration must reorient itself as a sector of cooperation rather than race and competition.
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