History may remember November 27, 2013, as the day when India's space mission took a giant leap. If all goes well, an Indian satellite will begin a 300-day voyage towards Mars that day to look for traces of life on the red planet - something that has gripped the imagination of scientists around the world for quite some time. If successful, the mission will cement the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) technological prowess in the comity of spacefaring nations.
Reaching the Mars orbit is no mean feat. If the 400,000 km travelled by India's first moon mission, Chandrayaan (October 2008 to August 2009), seemed like a big deal, then the Mars mission is the stuff scientists dream about. The red planet's distance from Earth - 55 million to 400 million km, depending on the orbits of both planets - means that signals from Earth to the satellite can be relayed only every 20 minutes. So, the satellite has to be technically equipped to handle its own problems.
India's space programme is costeffective - its entire budget is roughly half the cost of Nasa' $2.5 billion mission to Mars alone
Other countries are already exploring Mars
. In August 2012, NASA's Curiosity rover landed on the planet to assess whether it could have supported small life forms. If India is a latecomer to the game, why is ISRO keen to prove that it, too, can cut the mustard? The answer: it's strategic.
"While the United States and Russia have done a lot of work on Mars, the fact is you have to be there," says ISRO Chairman K . Radhakrishnan. "When tomorrow the world takes decisions on Mars, India needs to be there. If you look at projections, by 2030 or '40, we should be able to have a habitat on Mars."
As esoteric as it may seem, India has been pulling off its space missions more cost-effectively than many other countries. ISRO has thus far launched 100 missions. The Mars mission will cost an estimated Rs 450 crore. The Indian Space Department's budget for 2012/13 is at Rs 6,715 crore. In comparison, NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars alone cost $2.5 billion (more than Rs 13,000 crore) - twice as much as India's entire space programme. NASA's overall budget is nearly $18 billion a year.
But besides just demonstrating technological ability and how to bring about affordable rocket science, India's space missions are building up its soft power by changing how the country is perceived. Its space applications have an impact on the lives of millions, including fishermen and people in floodprone regions.
"India today is among the six major groups in space missions," says Radhakrishnan. "The others are the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, China and Japan. In terms of applications, India is considered a role model for the world."
Until a few years ago, Indian fishermen identified potential fishing zones using conventional methods - by the congregation of birds, the colour of the water, bubbles on the sea surface, and even smell. They had to travel long distances without success. ISRO has changed all this. Satellites now sense the surface temperature and colour of ocean water. The data is processed and analysed at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services in Hyderabad, and information on fish aggregation locations is sent to harbours. "Fishermen now don't waste kerosene or diesel," says Radhakrishnan.
"The savings are an estimated Rs 1 lakh to Rs 6 lakh a year per fishing vessel." ISRO is set to play an important role in two other areas - climate change studies and microwave remote sensing. A normal remote sensing satellite takes pictures from orbit, 600 km above the Earth's surface, but its sensors cannot see through cloud cover.
Microwave remote sensing can penetrate clouds and give useful information during heavy rains and floods. Earlier, such data came from a Canadian satellite, but in April this year, ISRO launched RISAT-1, a microwave remote sensing satellite.
"Our vision was to help people," says Radhakrishnan. Four decades after 1969, when ISRO was established, the space programme's focus has not wavered from that original mandate.Goutam Das