NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s first mission to Mars entered orbit on Wednesday, making it the first Asian nation to reach the Red Planet, all for less than the budget of the Hollywood space blockbuster “Gravity”.
The Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, cost $74 million, a fraction of the $671 million the U.S. space agency NASA spent on its newly arrived MAVEN Mars mission.
“History has been created today,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bursting into applause along with hundreds of scientists at the Bangalore command centre of the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
“We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible.”
India joins the United States, Russia and Europe in successfully sending probes to orbit or land on Mars.
In 2011 a Chinese spacecraft destined for Mars failed to leave Earth’s orbit after a botched Russian launch.
ISRO successfully ignited the main engine and eight small thrusters, which fired for 24 minutes, trimming the speed of the craft so it could be captured by Mars’s gravity and slide into orbit.
Nervous flight controllers received confirmation of the successful manoeuvre around 8 a.m. India time (10:30 p.m. EDT on Tuesday) when the spacecraft, nicknamed MOM, emerged from behind the planet and transmitted a signal.
After completing the 666 million km (414 million mile) journey in more than 10 months, the spacecraft, also known as Mangalyaan — Hindi for “Mars craft” — will now study the Red Planet’s surface and scan its atmosphere for chemical methane.
ISRO scientists will operate five scientific instruments on the spacecraft to gather data, said ISRO’s scientific secretary, V. Koteswara Rao.
The expected life of the craft is six months, after which it will run out of fuel and be unable to maintain its orbit.
Modi has said he wants to expand India’s five-decade-old space programme. The technological triumph is fortuitously timed for him - he will be able to flaunt it on a trip to the United States starting on Friday.
Modi is also India’s minister of space, and noted with satisfaction that the project had cost less than “Gravity”, whose budget the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) estimates at $100 million.
Mangalyaan and NASA’s MAVEN join two other NASA orbiters, Europe’s Mars Express orbiter and two NASA rovers currently exploring Mars.
MAVEN, which arrived on Sunday, is an acronym for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution. It is designed to study the planet’s thin atmosphere in attempt to learn what happened to Mars’s water.
Both the United States and Russia lost their first Mars probes. Europe’s first Mars mission, the multinational Mars Express, did enter orbit in December 2003, although a companion British-built lander was destroyed during its descent to the surface.
NASA duly tipped its hat. “We congratulate the Indian Space Research Organisation for its successful arrival at Mars with the Mars Orbiter Mission,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
“It was an impressive engineering feat, and we welcome India to the family of nations studying another facet of the Red Planet.”
India’s space programme was launched in the early 1960s and it developed its own rocket technology after Western powers imposed sanctions for a nuclear weapons test in 1974.
Still, it remains a small player in a global space industry that grew to $314 billion in revenues and government budgets in 2013, according to the Colorado-based Space Foundation.
Experts say Mars success can help change that.
“ISRO will now hopefully attract a lot of business,” said Mayank N. Vahia, a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. “We will now attract more international attention and international trade for satellites.”
Two-thirds of the craft’s parts were made by Indian companies such as Larsen & Toubro (LART.NS) and Godrej & Boyce.
With 30 Indian and 40 foreign satellite launches so far, its nearest cheap competition would be China, which is armed with bigger space launchers. ISRO signed an agreement with China National Space Administration on Friday to cooperate in research and development of various satellites.
Despite its success, India has been criticised for spending on space research as millions go hungry.
Additional reporting by Devidutta Tripathy in MUMBAI, Andrew MacAskill in NEW DELHI and Irene Klotz in PORTLAND; Editing by Kevin Liffey