The 6 November heralded the latest of India’s space flight achievements, the lift off of a mission to Mars. The Mars Orbiter Mission, also called Mangalyaan, is the country’s first mission to Mars and will spend the next 300 days travelling to the red planet. Its objective is to scan for methane gas in the Martian atmosphere, which has previously been detected but breaks down quickly in the conditions present, meaning that any methane found has to be continually produced.
Since 95% of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere is produced by microbes, some have speculated that proof of large scale amounts could hint to a biosphere within the planet’s surface, although the much more boring and likely answer is that it is produced by geological activity. The mission also seeks to examine how Mars has lost its atmosphere over time.
This is the second large scale space endeavour that India has launched in the last few years. The previous was that of launching a similar orbital craft to the moon that surprised the world when it discovered a fine film of water there that could be of use to future space exploration. This and the latest mission are a testament to how quickly India is taking a larger role on the stage of space exploration that mirrors its burgeoning global economic power. Yet both these missions have been prepared on a vastly lower budget than that of space agencies like NASA. Mangalyaan cost the India Space Research Organisation only 72 million dollars, comparably cheap in relation to similar projects. Cost is reduced by its smaller scientific scope than missions like the Mars Rovers, as well as fuel reductions by the probe building velocity as it orbits the Earth to slingshot to Mars, a process though which has met with glitches.
However, while this is seen as a success for the world’s largest democracy, there are critics who point to India’s large gap between its rich and poor. They say that for a country like this to spend so much on a mission to Mars is grossly negligent of problems at home. Yet others point to the economic benefits that could result from the research and building of the probe, and that the more ‘developed’ world is not without its social issues, yet still spends billions on similar endeavours.
Nonetheless it is clear that after the dominance of NASA for so many decades, the exploration of the solar system is opening up slightly to a new generation of superpowers.