India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle blasting off with the Mars orbiter aboard

India sends low-cost probe to Mars

India has successfully launched its first mission to Mars, aiming to put a satellite in Martian orbit at a fraction of cost of previous missions operated by world’s leading space agencies.

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) blasted off the south-eastern coast with the satellite scheduled to start orbiting Mars by September, searching for methane and signs of minerals.

Compared with Nasa’s upcoming $671 million Mars orbiting MAVEN mission, India has managed to develop, build and launch its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) for barely $73 million (£46m), positioning itself as a promising player on the international low cost space launch market.

So far, only the USA, Europe and Russia have succeeded in operating Martian missions. However, the failure rate has always been particularly high, with 15 out of 21 Russian missions failing. The 2011 Phobos-Grunt fiasco was closely watched by media around the globe.

The only Chinese attempt to put a probe into Martian orbit also ended in a disaster, failing to leave Earth’s orbit in 2011.

"This is our modest beginning for our interplanetary mission," said Deviprasad Karnik, spokesman for the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

India's space programme began 50 years ago and developed rapidly after Western powers imposed sanctions in response to a nuclear weapons test in 1974, spurring scientists to build advanced rocket technology. Five years ago, its Chandrayaan probe landed on the Moon and found evidence of water.

Though considerably cheaper than some of the country’s more lavish spending schemes, including a $340 million plan to build the world's largest statue in the state of Gujarat, India’s space programme has been criticised by many believing the country should first focus on tackling poverty.

However, advocates of India’s space programme argue the technology developed for space has practical applications in everyday life.

"For a country like India, it's not a luxury, it's a necessity," said Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and chief executive of Earth2Orbit, India's first private space start-up, explaining that satellites have broad applications from television broadcasting to disaster management.

Some analysts have suggested India has recently stepped up its efforts in space because of concerns about civilian and military space technology of neighbouring China.

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