6 Nov 2013

India launches mission to Mars

6:08 am on 6 November 2013

India has successfully launched its first ever mission to Mars in a bid to become the first Asian nation to reach the Red Planet.

The Mars Orbiter Mission's rocket blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the country's east coast on Tuesday and is scheduled to orbit Mars by September next year.

If the satellite orbits the Red Planet, India's space agency will become the fourth in the world after those of the US, Russia and Europe to undertake a successful Mars mission.

In order for the rocket to embark on the right trajectory for its 300-day, 780-million km journey, it must carry out its final orbital burn by 30 November.

The head of India's space agency told the BBC the mission would demonstrate the technological capability to reach Mars orbit and carry out experiments.

Some observers are viewing the launch as the latest salvo in a burgeoning space race between the Asian powers of India, China, Japan, South Korea and others.

Prof Andrew Coates, from the UK's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, told the BBC: "I think this mission really brings India to the table of international space exploration. Interplanetary exploration is certainly not trivial to do, and [India] has found some interesting scientific niches to make some measurements in."

Those niche areas include searching for the signature of methane (CH4) in the Martian atmosphere, which has previously been detected from Martian orbit and telescopes on Earth.

Nasa's Curiosity rover recently failed to find the gas in its measurements of atmospheric gases.

Methane has a short lifetime in the Martian atmosphere, meaning that some source on the Red Planet must replenish it.

The spacecraft's Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) instrument will aim to make measurements and map any potential sources of methane "plumes". The spacecraft will also examine the rate of loss of atmospheric gases to outer space which could provide insights into the planet's history.