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India launches 101st space mission, and looks to Mars

The mission will be carried out without international help, highlighting the growth and ambition of India's home-grown space program, which plans to launch a mission to Mars.

By Correspondent / September 29, 2012

India's space program is advancing at a breakneck pace with a goal of reaching Mars with an unmanned vehicle by 2014. Here, a satellite launch from earlier in September.

Arun Sankar K/AP/File

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Bangalore, India

India marked its 101st space mission today with the launch of its heaviest communications satellite, GSAT-10, from French Guyana.

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The satellite, carrying 30 communication transponders and a navigation payload, is the first of 10 missions slated for the coming year, a hectic schedule that the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) hopes will have glorious finale in November 2013 with the launch of an orbiter to Mars.

India’s Red Planet mission is to be carried out without international help, highlighting the growth of the agency.

“At the moment, we plan to do it on our own,” said ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan at the agency’s headquarters here last week.

After 50 years and 100 missions, the Indian space program is growing faster than ever. India’s scientists, some NASA-trained, assembled the country’s first rocket in a village church in the 1960s. Today, India’s home-grown space program is considered one of the top six in the world.

In recent years, the mission has expanded its original development agenda to embrace more commercial and exploratory interests – though to what extent remains to be seen.

Budget parallels India’s economic growth

The government has increased budgets, accelerating the pace of missions and moving toward more prestigious – and sometimes controversial – projects throughout the past decade.

“The first 50 missions took 27 years, the next 50 took place in the last 10 years and the next 58 missions will happen in the next five years,” said Mr. Radhakrishnan, whle emphasizing the agency’s “success on a shoestring” story.  

ISRO’s budget is barely 7.5 percent the size of NASA, but it has been growing every year since the early 2000s, jumping from $591 million in 2004-05 to $1.3 billion in 2012-2013.

“I can think of no other major space program in the world that has enjoyed such a level of sustained annual budgetary growth,” says Asif Siddiqi, an associate professor of history at Fordham University, who is working on a book on the Indian space program.

The budget expansion parallels India’s economic growth in the past decade, notes Mr. Siddiqi. And high-profile successes have also helped boost government support for ISRO, he says.

Shift in mission

For five decades, ISRO stuck close to founder Vikram Sarabhai’s vision to reject “the fantasy of competing with economically advanced countries" to explore the moon and instead use space technology to improve the lives of ordinary people.

The result: India has built one of the largest communication satellite systems –  used to support telemedicine and tele-education programs for rural areas – and one of the world’s best remote sensing systems, which helps with forecasting the weather and monitoring natural resources, including locating water sources.

But the agency’s recent forays into space exploration – including the 2008 Chandrayan 1 lunar probe and proposed missions to the sun – and reconnaissance satellites is a “fundamental shift” from Sarabhai’s “space for development” agenda, says Siddiqi. 

India’s uncertainty about that shift was evident last month with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement of the Mars mission, called Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for “To Mars”), which was met with mixed response. The mission, timed to coincide with the next window when the planet is closest to earth, is intended to help collect data on methane sources.

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