LONDON (CNN) — India has launched a rocket it hopes will allow it to join an elite group of space explorers to Mars.
The country’s space research organization (ISRO) launched its orbiter to the Red Planet on Tuesday — only NASA, the former Soviet Union and the Europeans have previously been successful in operating probes from Mars.
Japan made an attempt with the Nozomi orbiter in 1998 but it failed to reach the planet and a Chinese probe was lost along with the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission in January 2012. The UK’s Beagle 2 probe separated from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter in 2003 but nothing was ever heard from the lander.
It will take 10 months for India’s Mars Orbiter Mission to reach the Red Planet after lifting off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre near Chennai. The probe will explore the planet’s surface features, minerals and atmosphere.
ISRO is hoping to discover more about the loss of water from Mars, map the sources of methane gas, as well as collecting data about the two moons Phobos and Deimos.
But ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan told CNN that one of the biggest technological challenges was just getting there. Many missions have failed to reach the planet while others have crashed on the surface or contact has been lost before the probes could send back data.
India’s space program launched its first Earth satellite in 1975 and put an unmanned probe into orbit around the Moon in 2008. It plans to launch its own manned spaceflight in 2016, though an Indian cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma, flew aboard a Soviet space mission in 1984.
The U.S. is aiming to build on the success of a series of robots that have roamed the surface of the Red Planet when it launches its own orbiter mission called Maven — Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft — scheduled to launch on November 18.
The European Space Agency is working with the Russians on an ExoMars rover that is due to start its mission in 2018.
But private companies are also proposing trips to the Red Planet — and some of them are only one-way.
The Mars One project wants to colonize Earth’s neighbor, beginning in 2022 and the Inspire Mars Foundation wants to launch a man and a woman on a 501-day round-trip in 2018 without ever touching down.
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