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Indian spacecraft is off to Mars, on a lean budget

An image of earth taken by India’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft.
An image of earth taken by India’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft.(EPA/ISRO)

The news that India’s spacecraft, Mangalyaan, had successfully entered Mars’ orbit Wednesday has been a source of national pride. But the project, and its minuscule price tag, is also a testament to the march of scientific progress everywhere.

The project, affectionately nicknamed MOM, for Mars Orbiter Mission, by the scientists who worked on it, took a mere 18 months to complete and only cost $74 million. That’s vastly cheaper than most space missions — not to mention plenty of other, more routine endeavors. Indeed, it’s less than one-10th the projected cost of a proposed 740-foot building in Boston’s Financial District. Mangalyaan was so inexpensive in part because it is relatively simple. It mainly consists of three solar panels powering a handful of sensors designed to detect methane gas in the red planet’s atmosphere. NASA recently launched a $671 million Mars orbiter called MAVEN. It’s a far more sophisticated device, but getting a project completed quickly and on a lean budget is an innovation of its own.

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Space exploration was once the exclusive domain of the Cold War powers. India’s space program, along with others such as China’s and Brazil’s, speaks to a broader appetite for exploration. More space programs mean more data for scientists everywhere to use, and that will benefit everyone.