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Beijing, We Have a Problem

Oct 29 , 2014

Call it a mark of maturity. Without much fanfare, China launched an unmanned, unnamed spacecraft on Oct. 24, possibly paving the way for a more sophisticated moon vehicle in 2017. But this milestone comes less than a month after India's celebrated Mars mission reached its destination. In the court of public opinion at least, Beijing looks unlikely to top it.

Delhi's first interplanetary probe Mangalyaan ("Mars craft" in Hindi) became a worldwide media darling, a classic underdog story. The odds were not in its favor: two-thirds of all Mars missions had failed, including China's most recent attempt in November 2011. After six loops around earth, an innovative and inexpensive slingshot effect flung the satellite into orbit nearly a year ago, vaulting India into the global elite space club. While India's main space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, insisted the launch had nothing to do with Beijing's extra-orbital attempts, merely getting off the ground was a victory: one small step for India's shoestring space program, one giant leap for its self-esteem.

The scientific urgency of Mangalyaan is questionable: surveying the Red Planet's atmosphere and surface (which the NASA spacecraft Mariner-4 photographed back in 1965) for just six months will likely add little to the world's understanding of outer space. "It is as if the thirty-first scientist to voyage to the Galápagos Islands had stayed only a couple of days, sketched one or two of Darwin's finches, and then left," wrote Indian journalist Samanth Subramanian in the New Yorker.

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