Isro’s Mars mission enters last lap, faces crucial test on 24 September

Mangalyaan will attempt to put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars next week


If the spacecraft does manage to enter orbit around Mars on 24 September, India would become the first country to succeed on its first try. Photo: AFP
If the spacecraft does manage to enter orbit around Mars on 24 September, India would become the first country to succeed on its first try. Photo: AFP

New Delhi: India’s first mission to Mars will attempt to put a spacecraft in orbit around the red planet next week, in a crucial test of a low-cost project carrying the country’s hopes to join the leaders of a global space race.

A successful outcome for the Rs.450 crore mission would stiffen Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resolve to build new space launch facilities capable of handling heavier satellites, to make India a stronger player in the space technology market.

Launched last November, the Mars Orbiter Mission, called Mangalyaan, aims to study the planet’s surface and mineral composition, and scan its atmosphere for methane, a chemical strongly tied to life on Earth.

If the spacecraft does manage to enter orbit around Mars on 24 September, India would become the first country to succeed on its first try. European, US and Russian probes have managed to orbit or land on the planet, but only after several attempts.

“Confidence is high,” V. Koteswara Rao, scientific secretary at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), told Reuters. “All the operations done so far are successful and all the parameters measured are normal.”

Isro has already uploaded commands to help the spacecraft automatically enter orbit on the morning of 24 September.

Two days before that, scientists will run a four-second test of a main engine that has been idle for about 300 days, and make a small course correction, Rao said.

However, experts say it will be challenging to get the trajectory right and cut the craft’s speed from its current rate of 22km per second to allow it to enter orbit. So also would be the task of receiving the faint signals it emits.

“It’s like hitting a one-rupee coin about a hundred kilometres away, and that is tough,” said Mayank N. Vahia, a scientist in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

Isro has prepared a contingency plan. If the main engine fails to restart, eight small fuel-powered thrusters will be used to put the spacecraft into orbit around Mars.

Low-cost model and China

India launched its space programme five decades ago and developed its own rocket technology after Western powers imposed sanctions for a nuclear weapons test in 1974. In 2009, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.

Although facing strong competition from neighbour China, India aspires to be a low-cost supplier of space technology and grab a bigger slice of a more than $300-billion industry.

India has so far launched 40 foreign satellites, many of them for advanced nations.

Still, China has an edge, as it can put heavier satellites into orbit with its bigger launchers.

Modi aims to change that. In June, he hailed the Mars mission’s low cost, saying it was less than the budget of the Hollywood space movie Gravity.

A successful Mars mission would boost the global standing of India’s state-run space agency.

“It increases the prestige and reliability of India as a spacefaring nation whose rockets and payloads are reliable enough for other countries to use,” said Vahia.

India’s Mangalyaan cost roughly one-tenth of Nasa’s Mars mission Maven that will attempt to enter orbit around the planet three days earlier on 21 September. Reuters

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