India joins elite club of deep-space explorers

indiaIn just its first attempt to put a satellite into orbit around Mars, India made history as the first Asian country to join the elite club of Martian explorers that includes United States, the European Space Agency and Russia.

The success of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, affectionately nicknamed MOM, was not only greeted enthusiastically by NASA, but also by neighboring rival China which described it as “…the pride of India, the pride of Asia…”

“Today Mars has met MOM. MOM never disappoints. History has been created today,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced amid applause at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) command center in Bangalore.”We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and innovation.”

The ISRO described the mission as flawless since it blasted off from India’s southern spaceport on November 5 last year.

Lacking enough rocket power to blast directly out of Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull, it orbited the Earth for several weeks while building up enough velocity to break free.

What made the historic feat of MOM, also called Mangalyaan, meaning “Mars craft” in Hindi, momentous, impressive and unusual is the fact that the 1,350-kilogram (nearly 3,000-pound) satellite, was developed with homegrown technology and for a bargain price of about $75 million. NASA’s much larger Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, or Maven, which reached its position around the red planet very recently, cost nearly 10 times as much at $671 million.

MOM is said to now circle the planet for at least six months on an elliptical path that gets within 365 kilometers (227 miles) of the planet’s surface at its closest and 80,000 kilometers (49,700 miles) at its farthest.

Five solar-powered instruments will gather data that will help determine how Martian weather systems work and what happened to the water that is believed to have once existed on Mars in large quantities. It also will search Mars for methane, a key chemical in life processes on Earth that could also come from geological processes.

According to experts, none of the instruments will send back enough data to answer these questions definitively, but they say the data will help them better understand how planets form, what conditions might make life possible and where else in the universe it might exist.

For a country criticized as struggling to feed its people adequately and where roughly half have no toilets, its success has put the world more in awe now than just noticing this country of 1.2 billion people, most of whom are poor, as having a robust scientific and technical educational system that has produced millions of software programmers, engineers and doctors, catapulting many into the middle class.

But, more than anything, having the great opportunity to show some one-upmanship on its rival Asian superpower is what matters most.

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