India Probe Will Take Gas

India will launch an unmanned probe to Mars on Tuesday reports the AFP. Weighing 1.35 tons, about the size of a large refrigerator, it will carry sensors to measure the Martian atmosphere, hoping to find traces of methane that might indicate the existence of primitive life forms on the Red Planet.

The science may not be essential — tests already conducted by NASA’s Curiosity revealed only trace elements of methane in the Mars atmosphere – but the mission itself represents the future of space exploration, with a budget of just 4.5 billion rupees ($73 million), and symbolic of the Indian national penchant for jugaad — developing cheap work-around solutions.

Instead of flying directly, the 350-tonne rocket will orbit earth for nearly a month, building up the necessary velocity to break free from the earth’s gravitational pull.

“Don’t underestimate it because it is a low-cost mission that is being done for the first time,” Indian science journalist Pallava Bagla, author of the book “Destination Moon”, told AFP.

“Yes, there is Jugaad in it, there is innovation in it… and everyone wants to do low-cost missions nowadays.”

As Freeman Dyson proclaimed at the Starship Century Symposium, we are now at the beginning of a revolution in space technology, when for the first time cheapness will be mandatory.

This is bad news for something that requires the investment of the Apollo Program. It is good news for people who will develop these technologies…. Cheapness now has a chance.

Even more so, missions that dovetail with the country’s national security objectives…

Upendra Choudhury, an associate professor at AligarhMuslimUniversity who is an expert on India’s ballistic missile programme, says the spending has also boosted national security.

“India’s achievements in space technology are contributing to its missile technology, including the Agni-V,” he told AFP.

The Agni-V, capable of reaching Beijing and eastern Europe, was test fired for the first time in April 2012 and catapulted India into a small group of countries with such long-distance missile technology.

[Thanks to James H. Burns for the story.]