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India's space agency prepares for its first-ever mission to Mars

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If all goes according to plan, India will soon join an elite handful of countries that have successfully sent a spacecraft to the red planet.

The country will on Tuesday launch the unmanned orbiter Mangalyaan (which means "Mars craft" in Hindi) from its Satish Dhawan Space Centre. The craft, which is expected to take 10 months to reach Mars, is largely a demonstration of technological prowess — but it's one that would place India firmly into the select cadre of groups capable of such deep-space exploration. And if the $73 million mission goes well, India would also become the only country to have succeeded in its first try at sending a spacecraft to Mars. Just last year, China's efforts to send an orbiter to the planet as part of the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission were thwarted when the spacecraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

"We have a lot to understand about the universe."

"We have a lot to understand about the universe, the solar system where we live in, and it has been humankind's quest from the beginning," K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space and Research Organization, told the Associated Press. "We want to use the first opportunity to put a spacecraft and orbit it around Mars and, once it is there safely, then conduct a few meaningful experiments and energize the scientific community."

The Mangalyaan will use solar-power instrumentation to map the planet's surface, collect data about weather systems, and hunt for the presence of methane gas (a key signal that a planet can sustain life). The research is expected to complement work being planned for NASA's Maven probe, which will launch later this month, and NASA officials have publicly endorsed the Indian venture.

"Space-related power and prestige in Asia."

Indian officials have denied that the mission is an effort to match or overtake Chinese dominance where space exploration is concerned — with Radhakrishnan citing a desire to "to benefit the common man and society" as a primary motivator. But some analysts disagree. "There is an ongoing race for space-related power and prestige currently in Asia, although few officials will admit it," James Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told Bloomberg Businessweek. "India is clearly concerned about China's recent rise in space prestige and wants to minimize that damage."