India has declared itself the world's leader in cheap space exploration after its prime minister claimed that its Mars mission will cost less than the Oscar-winning science fiction film Gravity.
Narendra Modi made his claim yesterday at the launch of India's latest rocket, which put a French satellite into the Earth's orbit.
It is the fifth successful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) to be sent into space. Mr Modi used the occasion to assert India's claim to be the world's cheapest producer of rocket launchers and pitch for a larger slice of the £180 billion per year space market.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) applaudes following the successful launch of a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Photo / AFP
India has scored significant successes in space exploration in recent years. Despite some glitches, its 2008 Chandrayaan lunar mission discovered sources of water on the Moon and its Mangalyaan Mars orbiter was launched without a hitch in November last year.
Malgalyaan, which was also launched on a PSLV rocket, is expected to reach the red planet in September this year, where it will test the atmosphere for methane and hydrogen gases.
That mission will cost £45 million compared with the £58 million budget for the British-made Gravity, which starred Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Its cost is less than one-thirtieth of the cost of the American Mars mission Curiosity, which was launched in 2011 on a budget of £1.56 billion.
India has now launched 67 satellites to become one of six countries leading the field, Mr Modi said.
Its advantage, however, is the frugal approach to engineering which had made it the leader on cost.
The prime minister paid tribute to India's home-grown scientists who had worked with meagre resources. "It has been a journey of many constraints and resource limitations," he said. "I have seen photographs of rocket cones being transported on bicycles. Our first satellite, Aryabhatta, was made in industrial sheds in Bangalore."
Mr Modi said India's success had "deep historical roots" in the work of its Vedic scientists and claimed some of them had conceived of "flying objects long before others". He appeared to be referring to the controversial claim of a 19th century scholar that an ancient Hindu sage had revealed to him the existence of rockets several thousand years ago in a dream.
In drawings, the "Shakuna Vimana" appears to be a submarine-like flying object with propellers and flapping wings. Indian scientists in Bangalore later dismissed the claims.
Although frugal by Western standards, India's space programme has been criticised by social activists who believe a country, home to a third of the world's poorest people, should spend the money instead on health, education and food.
But Mr Modi said satellite technology would open new opportunities for the poor, connect the most remote families to the rest of the country and bring education and health care to their children.
He called on India's space scientists and officials to widen its applications and held out the prospect of greater cooperation with regional neighbours to share satellite data to monitor natural resources and cyclones.
Phillipe Ghesquiers, of Airbus Space and defence Systems, the company whose satellite was launched yesterday, said its Indian launch may be repeated.
"We got a precise orbit and the lift-off was on time and we will come back," he said.
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