Indian Mars Mission Launches

The mission will study Mars's atmosphere and surface and is an important milestone for the country's space agency.

On November 5th India's first Mars mission launched successfully. The orbiter will reach the Red Planet in September 2014 and study the atmosphere and surface.
ISRO
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.

16 thoughts on “Indian Mars Mission Launches

  1. Daniel Rey

    This mission will fail. A horoscope cast for the time of the lift-off (14:38 IST) and the place (Sri Hali Kota – 13n45, 80e15) shows two unfavorable configurations for Mars: 1) in opposition to Neptune and 2) in square to the Moon. The ISRO couldn’t've chosen a worst moment to launch the thing. This will be a lesson for them. Maybe next time they’ll go back to their roots and pay attention to the message of the stars. Will anybody here accept the challenge of a bet? I don’t mean one or two cents but BIG BUCKS.

  2. Anthony Barreiro

    Daniel, I wouldn’t accept that bet, not because of the alignment of Mars, Neptune, and the Moon in a geocentric astrological calendar (I wonder how the astrological omens look from Mars?), but because historically about half of all Mars missions have failed, and every nation’s first Mars mission has failed. So unless you’re willing to give very favorable odds, I hope no one will take your wager, regardless of their opinion of astrology — pro, con, or agnostic.

  3. Roy Robinson

    You may be correct, Daniel. Mars probes have a far from perfect success record so, no bet. The real question is, should Mangalyaan be an unqualified success, will you then give up your faith-based belief in the pseudo-science of astrology?

  4. Daniel Rey

    Anthony & Roy: the statistics give you a 50 % chance (cp. all previous Mars missions), or no chance (cp. first missions to Mars), and combining both figures your chances fall far below 50 %, maybe halfway between 50 & 0 %, so your caution is wise, yet Fate tends to favor the bold, so you ought to take the risk. After all, the Indian mission to the Moon was successful, which brings your chances up from 25 to who knows where, and, additionally, India is a software giant, which helps the probabilities and maybe makes them go beyond 50 %, so my risk is greater than yours, from the point of view of the skeptic. I’m just a beginner as concerns astrology but I happen to know a skillful astrologer from Kolkata (Calcutta) who might want to tell you exactly when in the course of those 300 days the ISRO will lose control of its artifact. He’s a true Master of Time. Shall I tell him to come and join us here?

  5. Daniel Rey

    Anthony & Roy: the statistics give you a 50 % chance (cp. all previous Mars missions), or no chance (cp. first missions to Mars), and combining both figures your chances fall far below 50 %, maybe halfway between 50 & 0 %, so your caution is wise, yet Fate tends to favor the bold, so you ought to take the risk. After all, the Indian mission to the Moon was successful, which brings your chances up from 25 to who knows where, and, additionally, India is a software giant, which helps the probabilities and maybe makes them go beyond 50 %, so my risk is greater than yours, from the point of view of the skeptic. I’m just a beginner as concerns astrology but I happen to know a skillful astrologer from Kolkata (Calcutta) who might want to tell you exactly when in the course of those 300 days the ISRO will lose control of the artifact. He’s a true Master of Time. Shall I tell him to come and join us here?

  6. Daniel Rey

    That cursed land telephone line won’t let one see videos and it sometimes makes one believe a message got lost, but then it shows up with an echo. Sorry!

  7. Peter W

    My understanding is that the Hindu deities who oversee spaceflight were duly consulted and gave the mission their blessing. Going out on a limb here and predicting a successful mission.

  8. A.D.Edward Raj

    Long ago, in North India there was a famous king.
    He heard about an astrologer who always predicted perfectly! And this astrologer was living in the south India.
    He made every arrangements so that this Astrologer travel across India and meet him.
    So astrologer got into the train and traveled north. After traveling, he reached the King’s private railway station at the midnight!
    There he found only few canines and no one from the palace to take him.
    He spent full night there fighting mosquitoes and howling dogs..
    Next full day to no one came to take him to the palace.. this guy was not knowing even to ask how to travel to the palace, as he was speaking a different language..
    After two days, king sent his minister to pick him up.. en-route to the palace, the astrologer was banging at the minister and the king..
    He was uttering "If I had know, you and your king are so rude.. I would not have come here."
    This message was conveyed to the king.
    After treating this astrologer well in his palace, the king sent him back saying "even you yourself does not know, what is going to happen the very next day.. and came all these way without any preparation.. how you are going to predict my future?"
    This busted the bubbles of many astrologers..

  9. Daniel Rey M.

    Not too long ago the Land of Bharat was invaded by Christians and atheists who proceeded to convince the natives that their ancient culture was worthless. Some of them became sepoys and Worshipers of the Cross, others joined the Be Rational crowd and moved to Paris, Berlin,
    London and Florida, mainly in order to avoid the heat, the mosquitos, the blackouts, caste violence and the train accidents. Eventually they managed to learn how to settle nearby planets and moons. They were surprised to find on one such moon, which was entirely covered by water except for a few islands here and there, a snake charmer who was skillful at performing the rope trick and other prodigies and who spoke Konkani and Telugu. He was asked about the similarities that seemed to suggest a link to their own land. However, his explanation burst their bubble in a very unexpected way….

    (to be continued presently)

  10. Martian Bachelor

    I’m not sure where methane on Mars (or in the atmosphere) might come from, so that would be something if they were to turn it up. I take it the onboard Lyman-alpha detector is to look for excited hydrogen that would result from photo-dissociation of CH4 in the upper atmosphere.

    I’m with Anthony Barreiro and share in the excitement. Way to go India! My calendar’s marked for 9/14.

  11. Prairie Dog

    Why are we even discussing astrology here, much less seriously? This blog is supposed to be about astronomy – the science – not mumbo-jumbo like astrology. What next? The influence of phlogiston on everyday life?

  12. Joe S.

    I’m assuming that the casting of a horoscope for the day of launch was brought up here fully tongue-in-cheek. It should also be noted that launch windows, especially for interplanetary missions, are set by orbital mechanics, not by the whim of project leaders.

  13. Daniel Rey M.

    Joe S., no, I was not being sarcastic. It’s others who’re having fun making derogatory comments here. I believe that astrology was not developed by anybody but was revealed, because I’ve corroborated its veracity. Prairie Dog is right, though: my subject-matter is out of place at this website, and also at the e-post-office box of the ISRO, which I didn’t expect a reply from anyway. It’s just that I couldn’t resist the temptation. Again, I’m still a neophyte and my astrological interpretation could be mistaken. I’m waiting for an explanation from Kolkata, where the aforementioned expert is bedridden with a nasty virus that attacks the respiratory system. "Windows" of opportunity chosen according to the rules of celestial mechanics are not incompatible with those chosen according to the rules of astrology. One can have it both ways.

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