India starts Mars probe countdown


India began a countdown Sunday to the launch of its most ambitious and risky space mission to date, sending a probe to Mars that was conceived in just 15 months on a tiny budget.

After a recent Chinese attempt flopped, India is seeking to make a statement of its technological prowess by becoming the first Asian power to reach the red planet. An unmanned probe, weighing 1.35 tons and about the size of a large refrigerator, will leave Earth strapped to an Indian rocket that is set to blast off from the southeast coast on Tuesday afternoon.

Wrapped in a golden film, the orbiter will carry advanced sensors to measure the Martian atmosphere, hoping to detect traces of methane, which could help prove the existence of some sort of primitive life-form.

Instead of flying directly, the 350-ton rocket will orbit Earth for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from the Earth’s gravitational pull.

Upendra Choudhury, an associate professor at Aligarh Muslim University who is an expert on India’s ballistic missile program, says the spending has also boosted national security. “India’s achievements in space technology are contributing to its missile technology, including the Agni-V,” he said. The Agni-V, capable of reaching Beijing and Eastern Europe, was test-fired for the first time in April 2012 and catapulted India into a small group of countries with such long-distance missile technology.