With homegrown technology and a remarkably low budget of about $75 million, India was on course to become the first nation to conduct a successful Mars mission on its first try.
If the Mars Orbiter Mission, affectionately nicknamed MOM, settles into orbit on Wednesday morning as planned, India will join the US, European Space Agency and the former Soviet Union in the elite club of Martian explorers.
The next few hours will be crucial as the Indian Space and Research Organisation commands a series of maneuvers to position the spacecraft in its designated orbit around Mars.
“We have to excel,” space agency chief K. Radhakrishnan said, adding that the mission would “establish the capabilities of India to orbit a spacecraft around Mars.”
If India can pull it off, it would be a major feat for the developing country of 1.2 billion people, most of which are poor. At the same time, India has a robust scientific and technical education system that has produced millions of software programmers, engineers and doctors.
It would also be the first success on a maiden attempt. More than half the world’s previous attempts — 23 out of 41 missions — have failed, including attempts by Japan in 1999 and China in 2011.
Scientists were giddy when the orbiter reached the outer sphere of Mars’ gravitational pull on Monday, after the main liquid engine successfully fired after being dormant for 300 days as the satellite travelled 666 million kilometres since breaking away from Earth’s gravitational sphere on December 1.
“The spacecraft is healthy. It has completed 98 per cent of its journey to Mars,” Radhakrishnan said. The Indian space agency confirmed that MOM had a “perfect burn for 4 seconds as programmed” that adjusted the spaceship’s trajectory.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to join scientists at the agency’s command centre in Bangalore to monitor the satellite’s final insertion into orbit on Wednesday morning.
The 1,350-kilogram orbiter would join Nasa’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, or Maven, which reached its position around the Red Planet on Sunday for a price tag of $671 million — nearly 10 times that of MOM’s.
Maven’s chief investigator, Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, said the US team was rooting for the Indian mission. “We’re hoping for their success,” he said on Monday. “We’re sending them the best wishes from the entire Maven team.”
There are three more satellites already circling the planet — Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, and the ESA’s Mars Express. On the Martian surface, Nasa’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers are rolling across rocky terrain.
India has said the spacecraft — also called Mangalyaan, meaning “Mars craft” in Hindi — is chiefly meant to showcase the country’s high-tech space abilities. Already, India has successfully launched a lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, which discovered key evidence of water on the Moon in 2008.
MOM’s scientific goals including using five solar-powered instruments to gather data that will help determine how Martian weather systems work and what happened to the water that is believed to have once existed on Mars in large quantities. It also will search Mars for methane, a key chemical in life processes on Earth that could also come from geological processes.
None of the instruments will send back enough data to answer these questions definitively, but experts say the data will help them better understand how planets form, what conditions might make life possible and where else in the universe it might exist. Some of the data will complement research expected to be conducted by Maven.
The spacecraft is expected to circle the planet for at least six months, following an elliptical orbit that gets within 365 kilometres of the planet’s surface at its closest and 80,000 kilometres at its farthest.
Radhakrishnan said that while the space agency hopes to soon put a rover on the Moon and to launch another space mission to study the Sun, its main focus will remain developing technologies for commercial and navigational satellite applications.
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