India will launch a landmark mission to Mars on Tuesday afternoon, if all goes as planned. The country’s space agency began its formal countdown to launch the unmanned orbiter on Monday.
India hopes the voyage will help contribute to the growing amount of scientific data about the closest planet to Earth. The mission, called Mangalyaan, will be launched from a small island near Chennai on the country’s southern coast.
The Washington Post reports that it will take the Mars Orbiter Mission probe 11 months to reach the Red Planet’s atmosphere, 140 million miles away from Earth.
Deviprasad Karnik, a spokesman for India’s space agency, explained that the trip’s objective is to “showcase technological capacity to reach Mars” and collect data for future missions to the Red Planet.
India’s space program is a source of national pride, especially in recent years as the country has raised its ambitions beyond satellite technology to lunar and planetary travel. The Los Angeles Times notes that India’s mission to Mars follows a successful 2008 moon orbiter mission.
If successful, India will be the sixth country to launch a mission to Mars, after the US, Russia, China, Japan, and the European Union. However, only three of those reached the planet’s orbit. The Chandrayaan-1 orbiter will take around 47 minutes to reach Earth orbit, where it will remain until December 1. It is expected to reach the Red Planet’s orbit around September 24, 2014.
While the mission shows India’s space capabilities, critics of the program say that it is too expensive to undertake while hundreds of millions of Indians still lack basic necessities, like toilets. Harsh Mander, director of New Delhi’s Center for Equality Studies, a think tank, commented, “I think it’s so strongly symbolic of an extremely unequal society.”
Despite the cost, scientists defended the mission, saying that it costs about six cents per capita in a nation of 1.2 billion people. They also argued that there are social benefits to the programs, including weather satellites that help save lives.
India hopes a successful mission to Mars will help promote the country’s capability and the affordability of its commercial satellite-launching service.