India Mars launch may spur new space race

With the liftoff of its first Mars orbiter, India has cemented its place as a burgeoning space power.  Only three space programs (US, Russia, EU) have successfully placed spacecraft in the orbit of Mars; two others have failed (China, Japan).  India's Mars Orbiter Mission isn't out of the woods yet, though.  It has only reached Earth orbit, where it will remain for the next several weeks.  After system checks, it will fire its rockets for the 10-month trip to Mars.  This is easier said than done - Russia's most recent effort, Phobos-Grunt, failed at exactly this same stage.  If it is successful in entering Martian orbit, the spacecraft will go to work studying the surface and atmosphere using a variety of onboard instruments.

India may have spurred a new space race with its launch today. (Image credit: Indian Space Research Organisation)

But this mission is just as much about demonstrating India's technical capabilities as it is about returning scientific results.  While the United States remains the world's premier spacefaring nation, with the EU and Russia close behind, a scrum is rapidly forming in its wake.  China has a successful manned space program;  Japan has returned a sample of a nearby asteroid; India has a spacecraft in orbit about the Moon; Iran claims to have launched a monkey into space; North Korea has attempted launches of their own.  Success in space is more than a point of pride for these nations: these efforts breed a culture of technological innovation vital to national development.  In some ways the Apollo Moon landings broke the back of the Cold War.  Now a new generation wants to claim that initiative.

As long as these programs remain true to their peaceful pursuits, nothing could benefit exploration more than a new space race.  Travelling between planets is expensive and time consuming - the more nations that can share the burden the better.  From Uranus and Neptune to the asteroid belt, there are  huge swaths of unexplored territory in our solar system, so there's plenty of room for everyone.  And, just as exciting as the science we'll do is the technology we'll develop.  To land on the Moon, the United States miniaturized the computer in a way never before seen.  Now computers are ubiquitous in the modern world.  I can't wait to see what the next generation of innovation is going to bring!