Mangalyaan Successfully Embarks On Its Trajectory To Mars

The gist of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM):

The MOM secured the sanction of the Government on 3rd August, 2012 with a budget of only USD 80 million, just a few days before NASA successfully launched and touched the surface of Mars, with their space exploration rover, designated Curiosity. Since then, the ISRO scientists have been working tirelessly to design a spacecraft for the proposed Mars mission. In an incredible 15 months period, the satellite for the MOM was ready. The spacecraft has  been equipped with five specific equipments (Payload) namely Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer (MENCA), Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP), Mars Color Camera (MCC), TIR Spectrometer (TIS) and Methane Sensor For Mars (MSM: to detect and identify the source of methane on the surface of Mars) which is one of the primary objectives of the mission. Other than these equipments, the satellite has been provided with larger solar panels, owing to the low solar flux in the Mars atmosphere.

Amongst much celebration, the MOM was finally launched on November 5th, 2013. ISRO has used a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, called PSLV-CL 25. This is a much lighter version, with a liquid fuelled six stage rocket propelled engine. Hence, the satellite had taken about 20 days to hit the path designated for its final destination. The six stage rocket had provided the necessary orbital boosts.

After its launch, the MOM spacecraft had been orbiting the earth as predicted, in a perfect elliptical orbit, accredited to the PSLV-CL 25, while its orbit was being slowly uplifted with the rocket thrusts. The spacecraft and the orbit lifting operations continued till late November 2013. ISRO had encountered some technical glitches during the orbit lifting operations. The liquid fuelled rocket propelled engine had stalled after the three consecutive orbit lifting operations, as a result of which the spacecraft failed to attain the apogee of 100,000 kilometers. This was corrected by the scientists with a supplementary boost.

With its fifth orbit lifting operation finally completed successfully, the Mangalyaan was orbiting at an apogee of approximately 1.93 lakh kilometers. This apogee meant that that satellite was ready to leave the orbit of the earth and embark on its journey of 400 million miles to Mars. The final departure from the earth’s orbit had involved a phase called the Trans – Martian Injection (the final rocket boost), scheduled for December 1st, 2013. The scientists of ISRO had reaffirmed that the satellite was in a perfect condition to undertake the said orbital maneuver. Once embarked on the scheduled path to Mars, it is expected that the spacecraft will complete its 300 days space travel and reach Mars by September 24th, 2014. NASA is providing the ground level support for the MOM through its Deep Space Network (DSN) facilities. Less than two hours before the launch, the 1350 kg satellite, made from Composite Fibre Reinforced Plastic (CFRP), was completely encased in gold.

Meanwhile, the spacecraft had transmitted images of the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa. One such photograph had been officially released by ISRO, which vividly captured even the Severe Cyclonic Storm Helen, which had recently hit the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh. The Mars Color Camera will be transmitting tri – color images of the atmosphere and topography of the Mars once the spacecraft embarks in an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet by September 2014. Other than studying the Martian atmosphere, the said camera will also monitor two of Martian satellites, Phobos and Deimos.

The Trans – Martian Injection:

The extremely challenging spatial maneuver of the Mangalyaan involving the Trans – Martian Injection was carried out successfully as scheduled in the wee hours of the morning of December 1st, 2013. The complex procedure commenced at 00:49 hours of the said day with the ignition of the 440 Newton liquid fuel propelled engine which gave an acceleration (velocity increment) of 648 meters/second to the spacecraft. The 22 minutes of high power rocket boost marked the departure of the spacecraft from its elliptical orbit around the earth and embarked Managalyaan on the path of its final destination, the Red Planet. The planned trajectory of the satellite will take it on a journey of 10 months around the Sun covering a distance of 485 million miles. The Mars Transfer Trajectory operation was carried out when the spacecraft had attained an approximate apogee of 1, 93000 kilometers.

The scientists of ISRO Telemetric, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC), who are engaged in the continuous monitoring of the spacecraft from the Spacecraft Control Center in Bangalore, had a brief period of distress and uneasiness as the expected data pertaining to the above – mentioned space maneuver from the antenna of the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) at Byalalu, South Africa, failed to arrive on time. As elaborated by the ISRO Chairman, K Radhakrishnan, “Due to thunderstorms in South Africa, where one of our ground stations tracking the Orbiter is located, we did not have the data from there when the engine was fired. We go the data later”.

The Trans – Martian Injection happens to be a very delicate maneuver involving a lot of calculations. As asserted by Mayank Vahia, Professor, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, “If the spacecraft is half a degree out in its direction or if the velocity is a few kilometers too fast or slow, the slingshot will not work”. But, ISRO had achieved the complex procedure smoothly. The MOM had successfully completed two of the most complex phases of the Mars Mission, namely the launch of the satellite and the Trans – Martian Injection but that’s not the end of it. The third complex spatial maneuver happens to be placing the satellite on a perfect trajectory to Mars, and as confirmed by the director of the spaceport of ISRO, M. Y. S. Prasad, “The third important phase will be capturing of Mars orbit in September 2014 at about 500 kilometers from the Red Planet’s surface for the five scientific experiments”.

The satellite had been built with the extensive cooperation of indigenous companies like Larsen and Toubro, Godrej and Boyce, Hindusthan Aeronautics Limited and Walchand Nagar Industries which contributed to more than two thirds in manufacturing the PSLV and the satellite. As confirmed by Radhakrishnan, the current status of the Mangalyaan is picture perfect, with all systems functioning on board as expected, while the final minutes of the orbit are still awaited.


The analysts assess that, with the successful completion of the Mars Mission, India will have a stake of USD 304 billion in the global space market, and will be on the same page as that of USA, Russia, Japan, China and Europe as well as being a leading authority in space explorations, in the global perspective. Only Europe, Russia and USA had been successful so far, in putting a satellite orbiting the Mars, or actually touching the surface of the Red Planet and exploring it to some extent.

As mentioned before, Mars Missions have a low success rate, (about one successful attempts out of three). The Chinese Mars Mission in collaboration with Russia was unable even to break the gravitational field of the earth and had deep – sixed itself in the Pacific Ocean. But luck seems to be on the side of India. The low budget MOM of India on successful completion will encourage many other countries with basic space technologies to embark in deep space probe. The successful completion of the MOM will also radically change some traditional ideas in space explorations like deep space probe is not possible without a high technology GSLV, if India can do the same with the PSLV-CL 25.

The MOM had attracted much criticism because of its small payload of scientific instruments and the launch vehicle which had somewhat compromised the speed of the spacecraft and its scientific observational capacities. It is a fact that, with its limited instruments, MOM will not be able to disclose any new fact about Mars that has not been logged by previous Mars explorations. But, what about the immense, unseen payload the MOM is carrying, that cannot be expressed in units of weight? That payload is the dream of 1.2 billion people of India, including me, and I have every faith that MOM will live up to our expectations!

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