In what seems to be a quantum leap in the Indian space technology, the aspiration of our country of sending an unmanned space vehicle to Mars is on the brink of fulfillment with the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) program, scheduled to be launched in November 2013. The red planet, Mars, is closest to the earth during November. This breakthrough of our country in space science will reaffirm the leading position of India in the global space program scenario. While the technical aspect of the program deals with identifying the source of methane on the surface of Mars, which may be biological or zoological, there is another angle to the said space program.  If the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is able to achieve the goal of MOM, this feat will put ISRO in the same league as NASA, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency, who have successfully completed Mars missions in the past. In fact, ISRO will be the fourth space organization to achieve such a space exploration.

Though India has launched many satellites in the past (seven satellites were launched in February 2013, for example), the proposed Mars mission will prove to be a difficult one as the success rate of Mars missions is comparatively low, about 33%. But India is determined to push forward with the program because another Mars mission will not be viable in the next 26 months.

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)

The MOM secured the sanction of the government on August 3, 2012 with a budget of USD 80 million, just a few days before NASA successfully touched the surface of Mars with their space exploration rover Curiosity. Since then, the ISRO scientists have been working tirelessly to design the spacecraft for the proposed Mars mission. On September 12, 2013, the director of the ISRO Satellite Center (ISAC), S. K. Shivkumar, confirmed the current status of the MOM program: “Things are in final shape. All tests for achieving this and everything that’s required has been done. The ground station network is upgraded and the reception center reconfigured. We are pretty confident that the PSLV takes this satellite to the right orbit.” The spacecraft had been freighted to the launch site, Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sreeharikota, on September 27, 2013, after the completion of the mandatory reviews by the national committee and the pre-shipment checks. The spacecraft itself has been designed within a very short period and will be carry five specific equipment (payload):

  • Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer (MENCA)
  • Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP)
  • Mars Color Camera (MCC)
  • TIR Spectrometer (TIS)
  • Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM): The purpose of the MSM is to detect and identify the source of methane on the surface of the red planet, which seems to be the prime objective of the mission. The equipment will also ascertain whether there has been any thinning of the Mars atmospheric layer.

The spacecraft, christened Mangalyaan (though it is not certain whether this name will be official) is assumed to be of a similar design as that of the Chandrayaan–1 used in India’s lunar mission. The only difference will probably be in the solar panels, which are three times the size used in Chandrayaan–1. The necessity to install larger solar panels is due to the low radiation of the Sun in the Mars atmosphere. The larger solar panels will ensure sufficient solar electricity generation despite the low solar flux. The Mangalyaan, weighing 1,350 kilos, with its 15 kilos of payload, has already been concatenated with its launch vehicle in August 2013. Due to the unavailability of the larger GSLV, ISRO is using a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle called PSLV-XL 25. This is a much lighter version, with a liquid-fuel six-stage rocket-propelled engine. Hence, the Mangalyaan will take about 20 days to hit the path designated for its final destination. The six-stage rocket will provide the six necessary orbital boosts. After its launch, the MOM spacecraft will be orbiting the Earth while its orbit will be slowly uplifted with the rocket thrusts, and a final rocket thrust will embark Mangalyaan on its scheduled journey of more than 385 million kilometers to Mars.

The spacecraft is scheduled to be launched on October 28, 2013 and the orbit-lifting operations will continue till late November 2013. Once embarked on the scheduled path to Mars, it is expected that the spacecraft will complete its 300 days of space travel and reach Mars by September 24, 2014. Since establishing radio communication with the spacecraft will be a time-consuming process (40 minutes to establish a two way conversation), the Mangalyaan has been equipped with a self-correcting system.

The role of NASA in MOM and NASA’s space project MAVEN

The rumor of a probable shutdown of the Deep Space Network of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) on the orders of the US Government was brushed off by ISRO in a statement issued on October 5, 2013. NASA is supposed to provide ground-level support for the MOM through its Deep Space Network (DSN) facilities — a bank of interconnected antennas located all over the world, used to monitor the movement of a spacecraft involved in deep-space probe. Though no communication negating the ground-level support issue has been received from the NASA end, an ISRO official commented, “We don’t need NASA DSN support during the initial days after the launch, as small antennas can track; but when it moves further and further away from Earth, we need such a support”. It is to be mentioned here that NASA’s pet project MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) is currently underway, scheduled for November 18, 2013. MAVEN will be reaching Mars a couple of days before Mangalyaan. So it is evident that the DSN facilities of NASA will remain operational to track the movements of MAVEN, which secures ground-level support of NASA for the MOM.

Conclusion

Interestingly, both Mangalyaan and MAVEN will arrive at Mars approximately a month before the predicted collision between the comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Springs) and the red planet. However, further studies of the path of the said comet (discovered January, 2013) have narrowed down the chance of collision to only 1 out of 120,000. The successful completion of the Mars Orbiter Mission will not only be a milestone of space exploration achievement for India, but will also provide the world with important scientific data which can possibly be the basis of future space explorations. The Mars Mission will undoubtedly put India on the same page with USA, Russia, Japan, China and Europe. As per the statement of James Oberg, a space consultant from Houston, “The time is now for many players to be doing many things across a much wider range of target goals than in the simple days of the moon race. It is not just playing a game or showing off at the Olympics or something. It is actually making contributions to the whole world”. He further added, “We have seen the technology that India has brought to the space program, very significant technology and the goals of the program appear to me to be very realistic and very important for India as well as the rest of the world”.

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