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India launches first Mars mission

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India successfully completed the launch and first phase of a mission to send a spacecraft to orbit Mars on Tuesday. If the mission is successful, India will became just the fourth space agency -- along with the United States, Russia, and the European Union -- to send a spacecraft to Mars.

The Mangalyaan orbiter -- Hindi for "Mars craft" -- is expected to begin orbiting the Martian planet sometime around September 2014. But the goal isn't just to reach to the planet. The orbiter will collect data on Martian weather systems, search for methane, and expand knowledge of how planets form, The New York Times says.

With a successful Mars mission, India would not only make history but would also have a leg up on other space agencies in Asia. A joint Mars mission by China and Russia failed in 2011. Japan also failed in a similar mission in 1998.

What's more impressive is that India's going to Mars at a cost of around $73 million -- a bargain compared to the $485 million the United States is spending to send its MAVEN spacecraft to orbit Mars later this month. The Economic Times has a good overview of how India was able to be so frugal with this spacecraft.

But even at relatively low costs, critics like China's English-language newspaper Global Times wonder if a space program is a proper investment for a country with poor infrastructure and millions of people living in poverty.

Like other developing countries investing in space programs, K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, argues in a recent interview that the space program is just a small part of the national budget (0.34 percent) and that the technology developed in the space program has broader applications than just being able to reach Mars.

Quartz goes even further in its defense of India's space program:

India’s space research and other advanced technological efforts are what birthed its technology industry. Bangalore did not become a tech hub simply because of its pleasant weather and lovely gardens. It is the home of ISRO, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and other high-tech industries that created an environment for and pool of engineers.

Photo: Indian Space Research Organization

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— By on November 5, 2013, 4:03 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure