India has become the first nation to send a satellite into orbit around Mars on its first attempt, and the first Asian nation to do so.
Mission control in the southern Indian city of Bangalore received confirmation of the success at 7.41am Wednesday, local time. The satellite Mangalyaan had entered the orbit of the red planet 12 minutes earlier, but the message needed to traverse the 400m miles (650m km) to Earth.
India now joins an elite club of nations who have successfully carried out interplanetary space missions, and has scored a significant point in its rivalry with China.
The prime minister, Narendra Modi, who won power in May in a landslide victory, was in Bangalore with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) watching the operation.
“We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and innovation,” Modi said, as scientists celebrated.
“We have navigated our craft through a route known to very few,” Modi said, congratulating the ISRO team and “all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion”.
Modi, who travels to the US to address the United Nations later this week, called for further efforts “for challenging, the next frontier”.
The mission has led TV bulletins and filled front pages. It has been mentioned in the prayers of temple priests and even on special emails sent out to parents of exclusive nursery schools in Delhi. Tens of millions of people across the country followed the progress of the craft live.
There was a a significant chance of failure. Of 51 previous attempts to reach Mars, more than half failed.
“Just getting there is a big, bold statement. Succeeding would be a giant one about India’s place in the region and in the world,” said Pallava Bagla, a high-profile science commentator, on Tuesday.
Mangalyaan, which means “Mars craft” in Hindi, took off from the island of Shriharikota, off India’s eastern coast, 10 months ago. The 3,000lb (1,350kg) device first headed for an elliptical orbit around Earth, after which a series of manoeuvres and short burns of its rocket engines sent it on towards Mars.
ISRO scientists successfully tested the main engine on Monday and performed a course correction that put the low-cost project on track to enter the red planet’s orbit. Reducing the craft’s speed from 13.7 miles per second was the key challenge.
“It has covered 98% of the distance but the last 2% is the tricky bit,” Bagla said before the successful entry. “If it is too fast it will fly by Mars and be lost in space. If it is too slow it will crash into the planet.”
Some have questioned the $70m (£43m) price tag for a country still dealing with widespread hunger and poverty. But India defended the Mars mission by noting its importance in providing hi-tech jobs for scientists and engineers and practical applications in solving problems on Earth.
Last year the UK allotted £80m to developing joint space missions with China and India. Modi aims to establish India as a bigger player in the £200bn space technology market, even as neighbouring China gives stiff competition with its bigger launchers.
Commentators said India could go further. “We have a threshold capability but we don’t go beyond that for the simple reasons that our economy is not doing well,” said Manoj Joshi, a Delhi-based analyst. “The model is very successful, the space guys have done outstanding work but we are just not investing enough.”
Nasa’s much bigger Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) mission aims to help scientists understand what happened to the water on Mars and the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere several billion years ago. How Mars lost its atmosphere is one of science’s biggest mysteries.
The Indian project aims to study the surface and mineral composition of Mars, and scan its atmosphere for methane, a chemical strongly tied to life on Earth.
The United States had its first successful Mars mission with a 1964 flyby by the spacecraft Mariner 4, returning 21 images of the surface of the planet. The former Soviet Union reached the planet in 1971, and the European Space Agency in 2003.
On Sunday, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a hardline affiliate group of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, offered ritual prayers in Delhi for the mission. The leader of the group said success would prove that India “has regained its status of superpower of the world”.