India's Mars mission enters second stage; outpaces space rival China

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India's first mission to Mars left Earth's orbit in the early hours of Sunday, clearing a critical hurdle in its journey to the red planet and overtaking the recent efforts of rival Asian giant China.

The success of the spacecraft, scheduled to orbit Mars by next September, would carry India into a small club of nations including the United States, Europe, and Russia, whose probes have orbited or landed on Mars.

India's venture, called Mangalyaan, faces further hurdles still on its journey to Mars. Fewer than half of missions to the planet succeed.

"While Mangalyaan takes 1.2 billion dreams to Mars, we wish you sweet dreams!" India's space agency said in a tweet soon after the event, referring to the citizens of the world's second-most populous country.

China's Mars probe rode piggyback on a Russian spacecraft that failed to leave Earth's orbit in November 2011. The spacecraft disintegrated in the atmosphere and its fragments fell into the Pacific Ocean last year.

India's mission showcases the country's cheap technology, encouraging hopes it could capture more of the US$304 billion (S$382 billion) global space market, which includes launching satellites for other countries, analysts say.

"Given its cost-effective technology, India is attractive,"said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, an expert on space security at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in Delhi.

India's low-cost Mars mission has a price tag of 4.5 billion rupees (S$90 million), just over a tenth of the cost of Nasa's latest mission there, which launched on Nov 18.

India's probe completed six orbits around Earth before Sunday's "slingshot", which took it into a path around the sun to carry it towards Mars. The slingshot requires precise calculations to eliminate the risk of missing the new orbit.

"Getting to Mars is a big achievement," said Mayank Vahia, a professor in the astronomy and astrophysics department of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.