doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.145 Published online 5 November 2013

India's first inter-planetary mission takes off to Mars

K. S. Jayaraman

The PSLV carrying the Mars orbiter spacecraft takes off from Sriharikota.

The first phase of India's Mars mission was declared a grand success today (November 5, 2013) when the Mars orbiter spacecraft was put in a parking orbit around the Earth before it embarks on a long journey to the Red planet on December 1.

The Mars orbiter spacecraft, dubbed Mangalyaan (Hindi for craft to Mars) by the Indian media, blasted off on board a larger version of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Sriharikota space port in the south-eastern coast of India.

The televised launch showed scientists in the mission control erupting into loud applause as the spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle 45 minutes after lift-off injecting Mangalyaan into the precise 241 km X 23560 km orbit around the earth.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration provided deep space navigation and tracking support services to the operations.

Koppilli Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), declared the first part of the mission a success. He congratulated the entire ISRO team for making India proud.

ISRO said that a series of six orbit-raising manoeuvres — the first one is slated for November 7 — will be performed to raise the spacecraft's apogee (farthest point from Earth) and build up the velocity needed by the spacecraft to escape from Earth's gravity. On December 1, the spacecraft will break away from Earth's pull and begin the journey into deep space using own propulsion to keep its date with Mars.

If all operations go as planned the spacecraft will arrive near Mars on 24 September 2014, one month before the closest approach of the comet that was discovered by Australian astronomer Rob McNaught in January 2013. An ISRO scientist has said the presence of the comet will pose no problem to Mangalyaan. According to ISRO's documents September 2014 is the crucial time demanding careful operations to bring the spacecraft into the Martian orbit.

Mangalyaan is planned to enter into a 372 km by 80,000 km elliptical orbit around Mars from where it will be observing the planet for six months.

The Mangalyaan mission is said to have cost India Rs 4.6 billion. If successful, it will make India the first Asian country to reach the red planet, propelling it ahead of China and Japan which have attempted to reach Mars, but were unsuccessful. So far, only the U.S., Russia and Europe have successfully sent a spacecraft to Mars.

Radhakrishnan has repeatedly said India is not engaged in Asian space race and the mission's primary objective is to demonstrate India's technological capability to reach the Martian orbit that would pave the way for future scientific exploratory missions and to conduct meaningful experiments. Another challenge "is related to deep space mission planning and communication management at a distance of nearly 400 million km."

ISRO had originally scheduled the launch for October 28. It was postponed as radar mounted tracking ships could not be positioned in time in the south pacific due to bad weather.

Former ISRO chairman Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan told a news agency recently that a successful mission to Mars would increase ISRO's international profile and make it easier for it to collaborate in international deep-space missions.

In a post launch statement, the renowned space scientist Yash Pal said Mangalyaan is ISRO's special gift to the nation and to humanity while the former ISRO chairman said launch success showed that "Indian space science has become mature."

Mangalyaan carries science instruments, totalling a mass of 15 kg. Unlike in the case of Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft to the Moon in 2008, which carried instruments from other nations, Mangalyaan's five scientific instruments are all made by ISRO.

Among the instruments, the Lyman Alpha Photometer is aimed at studying the ratio of hydrogen isotopes to get information on escape processes of the Mars upper atmosphere. Another instrument, Martian Exospheric Composition Explorer would study the elemental composition of the atmosphere. An imaging spectrometer will study the mineralogy of Martian surface. A colour camera would take images of the red planet and if lucky, pictures of Phobos and Deimos — two satellites of Mars.

A key instrument is Methane Sensor that would look for Methane whose presence is believed to be a sign of Martian life. NASA' Curiosity rover did not find methane on Martian rocks and ISRO is hoping to stumble upon it in the Martian atmosphere.

But Madhavan Nair, who was ISRO chairman during 2003-09 and was responsible for charting the road map for ISRO's future activities, is sceptical. He said in a telephone interview that Mangalyaan can hardly do any science from its highly elliptical orbit. He said the money could have been better used to speed up work on the larger version of the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle that is needed to launch India's heavier communication satellites and to enable the country become a competitive player in the commercial launch market.

An ISRO scientist told Nature India that the small size of scientific payload and the highly elliptical orbit were dictated by the lifting capacity of the PSLV and the need to have a bigger solar panel for powering the orbiting spacecraft.