Cheers erupted early this morning as India became the second nation in just two days to successfully slip a satellite into orbit around the Red Planet. The probe, unofficially nicknamed Mangalyaan (for Mars craft), is the fifth craft to join the Mars party which currently includes NASA’s newly arrived MAVEN and three other orbiters: Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance and the ESA’s Mars Express. Two NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are also currently scampering across the surface.
The Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM for short, began its interplanetary journey on November 5, 2013, when it was launched from the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Satish Dhawan Space Center atop a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Despite launching several days before MAVEN, it arrived shortly after the NASA craft.
Getting to Mars is no mean feat, especially for a developing country. Out of 51 attempts to reach the planet so far, less than half have been successful. What makes India’s achievement even more impressive is that this is only the second time that a mission has arrived at Mars on a maiden voyage. The first group to achieve this was the European Space Agency that reached Mars on its first attempt back in 2003.
“Today not only has a dream come true, but we have created history for India, for ISRO, and for the world,” said Vipparthi Adimurthy of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology.
Amazingly, India achieved all of this under a tight budget. MAVEN came with a staggering $671 million price tag, and the ESA’s Mars Express cost $386 million. MOM set India back a slightly more humble $74 million, but being thrifty has come with a few constraints. In particular, the amount of weight that the launch vehicle could carry was restricted, so the probe couldn’t take as much fuel as would be desirable. This means that the satellite has been forced to adopt an unusually elliptical orbit as there is insufficient fuel to tidy it up.
Mangalyaan will now spend at least six months orbiting Mars, using five solar-powered instruments to gather data on the planet. Three of them are dedicated to atmospheric observations that may shed light on the disappearance of water and other molecules from the atmosphere. The other two are optical and infrared cameras that will be used to study the Martian surface and weather. MOM will also search for methane, a possible indicator of certain life forms or geological processes. The team hopes that the information gathered may help us better understand planetary formation and the history of Mars.
“It’s yet another source of information,” said Roger Franzen, a technical program manager at the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Mars is gradually unveiling its secrets to science and humanity, and the Indian mission is yet another means of unveiling this enigma that Mars presents.”