India Launches Mars Orbiter Mission, Heralds New Space Race

PHOTO: The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket carrying Indias Mars spacecraft lifts off
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The Curiosity rover might be getting a visitor from Earth sometime next year, courtesy of the world's largest democracy.

The Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) launched its Mars Orbiter Mission today from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India -- the first inter-planetary expedition for the country. The Mars Orbiter Mission also goes by the name Mangalyaan, which means "Mars craft" in Hindi.

Only three other space agencies have successfully made it to the Mars: NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, and the European Space Agency.

"We want to use the first opportunity to put a spacecraft and orbit it around Mars," ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan told the Associated Press. "And, once it is there safely, then conduct a few meaningful experiments and energize the scientific community."

The Mars Orbiter is expected to reach the red planet on Sept. 24, 2014.

Though NASA, RFSA and ESA have had their share of successes and failures in getting a spacecraft to Mars, other countries have made the attempt as well. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched the Nozomi (Planet-B) in 1998, but failed to get hooked into the red planet's orbit. The China National Space Administration partnered with the RFSA to launch the Yinghuo-1 orbiter, but the spacecraft failed to leave Earth's orbit.

NASA is scheduled to launch another satellite, MAVEN, into the red planet's orbit in a couple of weeks. Nick Schneider, a faculty research associate at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Colorado, said that the research goals of ISRO and NASA complement one another.

NASA's Mars probe has an instrument that examines ultraviolet emissions from all types of gases at varying altitudes in the Martian atmosphere. "The Mars Orbiter is measuring one gas, hydrogen, at a much higher altitude," Schneider told ABC News. "Because the Mars Orbiter's orbit extends higher than Maven's, there is potential for collaboration."

Getting any type of spacecraft to Mars, whether it's a satellite or a rover like Curiosity, is a difficult undertaking. "A little more than half of the missions to Mars have failed," said Schneider. "It's a very challenging task, but we're all trying to beat the odds."

"NASA congratulates the ISRO on the successful launch of its Mars mission, which is its first planetary mission," a NASA spokesman said in a statement. "We look forward to the spacecraft's successful insertion into Mars' orbit and learning more about the red planet's atmosphere."

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