NEW DELHI — India became the first Asian nation to reach the Red Planet when its indigenously made unmanned spacecraft entered the orbit of Mars on Wednesday — and the first nation in the world to successfully reach Mars on its first attempt.
The spacecraft called “Mangalyaan,” or “Mars-craft” in Hindi, which was launched last November, slowed down just enough to reach orbit early Wednesday, securing India a place in the elite global space club of Martian explorers.
Images of beaming scientists clapping and hugging each other at the command center in the southern city of Bangalore were shown live in a nationally televised broadcast after a breathless, nail-biting countdown during the spacecraft’s final leg.
Over an hour after reaching the orbit, the space agency received the first photographic data of the red planet’s terrain which were transmitted via an antenna located in Canberra, Australia.
Calling it the “national pride event,” the Indian Space Research Organization also showed it live on Facebook and Twitter.
The Headline Today news TV channel called it “India’s date with the Red Planet,” and NDTV 24x7 called it “India’s big leap,” reflecting the surge of national pride. NASA tweeted congratulations to India for its “Mars arrival.”
Wearing a symbolic red vest, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, witnessed the final insertion of the Mission Orbiter Mars, or MOM as it is fondly called here.
“Mars has found MOM today,” Modi said in his short address. “When this mission’s short name became MOM, I was convinced that Mom never disappoints. History has been created today. India is the only country to have succeeded to reach the Red Planet on its first attempt.”
The official Twitter account of NASA’s Curiosity Rover — which has been on the Martian surface since Aug. 6, 2012 — tweeted, “Namaste, @MarsOrbiter! Congratulations to @ISRO and India’s first interplanetary mission upon achieving Mars orbit.”
To which MOM’s Twitter account replied, “Howdy @MarsCuriosity ? Keep in touch. I’ll be around.”
Officials at the space agency said that for the past two months, scientists worked more than 12 hours a day brainstorming every possible problem and coming up with exhaustive recovery options.
MOM has built-in intelligence, autonomy and a stand-by control system to prevent a breakdown in communication, said M. Pitchaimani, deputy director of the control center at the Indian Space Research Organization.
“Many countries have failed in their first attempt. India got success the first time itself,” said Pitchaimani in a telephone interview. “But this has come after intense study of others’ failures and the reasons for failure, and building our satellite accordingly. We also had gained from their accumulated knowledge about the gravity field of the planet and we built robust instruments based on that data.”
More than half of the 51 Mars missions launched globally have failed. India’s successful mission follows those of the United States, Europe and Russia. But India’s mission cost a fraction of NASA’s $670 million Maven, which entered Mars orbit Sunday. The Curiosity Rover, which touched down on Mars in 2012, cost nearly $2 billion.
By comparison, India’s $72 million Mars orbiter is the cheapest interplanetary mission ever. Modi said that India’s Mars mission cost less than what it took to make the famous Hollywood space movie “Gravity.”
“We kept it low cost, high technology. That is the Indian way of working,” Sandip Bhattacharya, assistant director of B.M. Birla Planetarium in the northern city of Jaipur, said in a telephone interview. “ . . . Our goal was to reach Mars and send few pictures and scientific data. Now in the coming years, this will give us leverage to plan for newer Mars missions in a more aggressive manner with heavier payload with larger exploration goals.”
Over the next six months, India’s Mangalyaan will study the mineral composition on Mars and also look for the presence of methane, a chemical key to life on Earth.
India has launched 75 satellites since 1975, and its space program has over the years worked on collecting weather data, predicting natural disasters, feeding television and radio stations and also teaching children in remote villages without schools.
Wednesday’s feat mirrors the country's growing ambition to sprint ahead in the Asian space race by competing with China, which has a bigger program than India’s.
“The success of our space program is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation,” Modi said. “Modern India must continue and it must become a world guru. Let us push our boundaries. And then push some more, push some more.”
India’s Mars mission has its share of critics, who have said it is an extravagant indulgence for a country where one-third of the population of 1.2 billion have no access to electricity.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the weight of the spacecraft. According to Indian space agency officials, at the time of launch, the Mangalyaan weighed 1.337 tons. After launch and the firing to achieve orbit, the spacecraft weighs 0.55 tons, the officials said.