NEW DELHI — India is set to launch a space mission to Mars today that, if successful, would beat China to the punch, although some wonder whether the undertaking is the best use of money when many Indians lack food, clean water or basic sanitation facilities.
The 3,000-pound Mars Orbiter Mission probe, or Mangalyaan, is set to lift off at 2:38 p.m. local time (4:18 a.m. EST) aboard a 350-ton, four-stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, the first step in its 300-day trip to the red planet. The cost of the mission is approximately $73 million.
The launch — which follows India’s successful 2008 moon orbiter mission, the Chandrayaan-1 — is scheduled to take place at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota on the Bay of Bengal some 60 miles north of Chennai in southeastern India.
If successful, India would be the sixth nation to launch a Mars mission, after the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and the European Union. But only three of those reached the planet’s orbit — China and Japan failed — underscoring the long odds.
If all goes as planned, the orbiter will take about 47 minutes to reach Earth orbit, where it will stay until Dec. 1 before starting the 240-million-mile voyage to Mars. The vessel is slated to reach the red planet’s orbit around Sept. 24, 2014.
For added insurance, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization sought the blessings of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation, placing a scale model of the launch vehicle, the PSLV-C25, at the idol’s feet yesterday at the lavish Tirumala shrine 80 miles from Chennai.
“These temple visits helped destress the mind and offer clarity,” the Hindustan Times newspaper explained.
Civic groups have criticized the cost, in a country where hundreds of millions of people still lack toilets.
“I think it’s so strongly symbolic of an extremely unequal society,” said Harsh Mander, director of New Delhi’s Center for Equity Studies, a think tank, and a former adviser to the prime minister on social issues. “We continue to have something like 230 million people who sleep hungry every night, and millions die because they can’t afford health care. Yet these are not issues that cause outrage.”