India has placed its Mangalyaan spacecraft to the Martian orbit, rewriting the history by becoming the first country to succeed on the first attempt.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi carefully watched as engineers at the control centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) executed the final manoeuvres, firing the spacecraft’s main 440 Newton engine and eight auxiliary thrusters to reduce the speed.
After 24 minutes, at 8am local time on Wednesday, a signal arrived confirming that Mangalyaan successfully established its position in the Red Planet’s orbit.
“History has been created today," said Modi, celebrating the triumph together with hundreds of scientists at the Bangalore-based ISRO centre. "We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible."
The success of Mangalyaan not only catapults India into the exclusive club of countries which have managed to reach the Martian orbit, but also makes it the only Asian country to have achieved so. A similar attempt by China failed in 2011 immediately after launch.
Previously only the USA, Europe and Russia managed to place a spacecraft in the orbit around Mars, all of them failing with their first attempts.
The Mangalyaan (Hindi for Mars), also known as Mars Orbiter Mission, is extraordinary as it was achieved within an extremely limited budget. With a $74m (£46m) price tag, Mangalyaan was built and sent to Mars at a tenth of the cost of Nasa’s MAVEN spacecraft, which reached the Red Planet two days ago.
Two-thirds of the craft's parts were made by Indian companies such as Larsen & Toubro and Godrej & Boyce.
The mission, planned to last six months, will study the atmosphere of Mars and search for traces of methane – the tell-tale sign of life.
The Mangalyaan triumph will certainly strengthen Narendra Modi’s drive to expand India’s space industry and grab a bigger slice of the international commercial satellite launch market worth some $314bn.
India's space programme, launched in the early 1960s, developed its own rocket technology after Western powers imposed sanctions for a nuclear weapons test in 1974.
With 30 Indian and 40 foreign satellite launches so far, India wants so go head to head with China, another low-cost launch provider. So far, China has had the advantage of owning more powerful launchers but the development boost expected after the Mangalyaan success may soon change the situation.
On Friday, ISRO signed an agreement with China National Space Administration to cooperate on satellite research and development.
Despite its recent successes, India faces criticism for spending millions on space research instead of dealing with social issues plaguing the country where millions live in slums and suffer from poverty and famine.
E&T's India correspondent, Kavitha Srinivasa, reports on local reaction to India's Mars mission