The mission will study Mars's atmosphere and surface and is an important milestone for the country's space agency.
In November 1963, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its first rocket from the midst of coconut groves in Thumba, a fishing village just south of the Earth’s magnetic equator. Indian physicist Vikram Sarabhai led a science team that turned a local church into a temporary office and a cowshed into a makeshift laboratory to launch an American Nike-Apache and create history for India’s nascent space program.
Fifty years later, India has scaled up its goals. ISRO now has its sights on Mars and is helming the ambitious Mars Orbiter Mission, informally dubbed Mangalyaan (“Mars Craft” in Hindi). The probe will insert itself into Martian orbit next year and conduct science experiments to understand the composition of the Red Planet’s surface and atmosphere.
The unmanned spacecraft took off at 2:38 p.m. local time on November 5th from Sriharikota, a barrier island off India’s eastern coast.
Mangalyaan caused India some anxiety when bad weather prevented a telemetric ship from reaching Fiji on time for the original launch date of October 28th. The delay had large numbers of spectators monitoring with bated breath the 56.5-hour countdown that began on November 3rd at 6:08 a.m. ISRO provided regular online updates, and the spacecraft’s launch was televised live across India. Had ISRO missed the launch today, the country would have been forced to wait until 2016 for the next launch window.
Mangalyaan might be the cheapest trip to Mars ever flown. ISRO receives about 0.34% of the total Indian budget, of which the government approved $73 million U.S. for this project in August 2012. This is a tenth of what NASA spent on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005. To save money, the Indian space agency used the ground systems and the launch vehicle already used for India’s lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, which operated from October 2008 to August 2009. The new Mars orbiter was built over a period of 18 months specifically for this mission.
The spacecraft is expected to arrive at Mars in September 2014. The Indian team will maneuver the spacecraft during its 300-day interplanetary voyage with help from a JPL/NASA team, using NASA’s Deep Space Network to monitor the craft’s trajectory. After insertion into its elliptical orbit, the closest distance between the spacecraft and Mars is expected to be around 350 km and the farthest 80,000 km (220 to 50,000 miles). This is farther out that NASA’s upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, which is scheduled to launch in two weeks and will fly 150 km to 6,000 km above the planet’s surface.
While the Indian team will work with NASA to get the craft to Mars, it plans to execute the science findings on its own.
The spacecraft carries a science payload of 15 kg (33 lbs) that includes 5 instruments — a Lyman-alpha photometer, a methane sensor, a quadruple mass spectrometer, a thermal infrared imaging spectrometer, and a tri-color camera. These will work together to conduct a global survey of the Martian atmosphere and surface, particularly looking for traces of methane, which have been spotted in observations of the planet in the past (MAVEN isn’t equipped to look for the compound). ISRO hopes not only to find methane but also to trace its source.
Recently, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity reported that the atmosphere sampled in Gale Crater did not contain methane. But Indian scientists do not think this will dampen their mission. Mangalyaan’s Project Director Dr. Mylaswamy Annadurai said, “I tend to believe it strengthens the Indian mission’s requirement of a global survey prior to localized in situ survey,” suggesting that the absence of methane in Curiosity’s measurements may not reflect findings across the Red Planet.
In spite of the palpable excitement in India, ISRO has also had to fend off a fair number of critics wondering if India should even invest in a space mission when pressing public health and socioeconomic issues are often stalled by lack of funds.
In the face of this criticism, Annadurai stresses ISRO’s mission statement: “In The Service Of Human Kind.” He thinks that the technology tested during the course of the Mars mission will help create civilian programs that connect remote geographical locations in the country using the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites and the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system. He also thinks that this mission will help promote ANTRIX, ISRO’s marketing arm, which provides space products and technical consultancy services to countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and some parts of Europe.
ISRO has this window of opportunity to strengthen its space exploration programs thanks to India’s recent economic boom. Shortly after the Mangalyaan mission, the team will focus on Chandrayaan-2, a mission that plans to land a rover on the lunar surface by 2016. Annadurai, who is also the project director for the Chandrayaan projects, said, “Such missions help us to retain and attract the talents for space science and technology in general and space astronomy in particular.”
Shweta Krishnan is a former S&T editorial intern and is now a freelance writer and short-film producer in India.