AFP

BANGALORE-India’s first mission to Mars left Earth’s orbit Sunday, successfully entering the second phase of its journey that could see the country win Asia’s race to the Red Planet, scientists said. The spacecraft was successfully flung into outer space and now embarks on a 10-month journey towards Mars that takes it around the sun, with arrival scheduled for next September.

“Everything went off well. We took stock of the Mangalyaan’s health and everything is normal,” Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K. Radhakrishnan said in a tweet, using the Indian name for the Mars Orbiter Mission. ISRO said in a statement the spacecraft was on course to encounter Mars after a 10-month journey around the sun. “While Mangalyaan takes 1.2 billion dreams to Mars, we wish you sweet dreams!” the orbiter mission sad in a tweet. Mangalyaan could still face hurdles before reaching Mars. More than half of all missions to the planet have ended in failure, including China’s in 2011 and Japan’s in 2003.

So far, only the United States, the European Space Agency and Russia have succeeded in sending probes to Mars. India, which has never before attempted inter-planetary travel, is aiming to promote its low-cost space programme, with the bill for the project only 4.5 billion rupees ($73 million). The figure is just over one tenth of the $671 million earmarked for NASA’s unmanned spacecraft for Mars. It launched on November 18 to search for clues in the planet’s atmosphere as to why it lost its warmth and water over time. Both probes are expected to arrive at Mars in September.

India’s gold-coloured probe, the size of a small car, will try to detect methane in the Mars atmosphere, which could provide evidence of some sort of life form on the fourth planet from the sun. India’s Mangalyaan blasted off on November 5 and is using an unusual “slingshot” method for interplanetary journeys.  Lacking enough rocket power to blast directly out of Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull, it was orbiting the Earth until the end of November while building up enough velocity to break free. Radhakrishnan said the spacecraft slingshoted early Sunday out of Earth’s orbit towards Mars, which has an elliptical orbit - meaning it is between 50-400 million kilometres from Earth.

Radhakrishnan hailed the successful move as a major step forward in India’s space programme. “(It is) a turning point for us, as India will foray into the vast interplanetary space for the first time with an indigenous spacecraft to demonstrate our technological capabilities,” he told AFP.

Two out of three critical phases of the mission have now been accomplished - with the third being a successful entry into Mars’s orbit, said ISRO spaceport director M.Y.S. Prasad. Mangalyaan, which is carrying a camera, an imaging spectrometer, a methane sensor and other instruments, will carry out five experiments, Prasad said from the spaceport of Sriharikota in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

The Mangalyaan project was disclosed only 15 months ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, shortly after China’s attempt to reach Mars flopped when it failed to leave Earth’s atmosphere. The timing and place of the announcement - in an Independence Day speech - led to speculation that India was seeking to make a point to its militarily and economically superior neighbour, despite denials from ISRO.