Earlier this week India put a spacecraft in Martian orbit, joining an elite international club. Getting even a robot to Martian orbit is challenging. Of 40 spacecraft launched towards Mars' orbit or surface, only 19 have succeeded.
Not only has India succeeded where Russia, Japan and China have failed, but it has done so at a remarkably low cost: reportedly only $74-75 million. Admittedly, the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is a lot less capable than the NASA and European Space Agency orbiters, but it is still an accomplishment that India can be proud of. India was wise to plan an austere mission for their first flight to Mars: now they can build on that success for their next mission.
With the arrival of NASA's MAVEN, also earlier this week, the flotilla of operational orbiters has grown to five, with two operational rovers on the surface. Five orbiters from three different space agencies: this is how you play the long game!
The oldest of the orbiters, Mars Odyssey, was launched in 2001.
We are getting better at this. Not only have we been wringing the bugs out of our hardware and software and mastering new technologies, but we have been growing a richer world in which six different space agencies can afford to launch interplanetary missions. It's no longer a game with only two players.
The flotilla is more than the sum of its parts. Mars Odyssey has relayed data from rovers that either could not reach Earth themselves, or could only have transmitted a fraction of what they found. MAVEN will take on that role from the aging spacecraft. The orbiters have imaged landers making the perilous dive into the atmosphere and tracked rovers on the surface.
God willing, we will build on this beginning.