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doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.127 Published online 24 September 2014

India places historic probe in Mars orbit 

K. S. Jayaraman

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi smiles after news of MOM's entry into orbit comes in.
© ISRO
India's unmanned Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft  — the country's first interplanetary probe — was placed in the orbit of the red planet Mars, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) announced this morning (24 September 2014).

MOM is the second  visitor to the planet in three days this week. The US space agency NASA's  Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN)  probe that was launched 18 November 2013 entered into Martian orbit two days ago on September 22.

The final operation leading to  MOM's capture by Mars,  watched by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the control centre at Peenya near Bangalore — and telecast live by state-owned Doordarshan — ended a long and anxious wait of ISRO scientists. Congratulating the ISRO team  Modi  said, "You have made history today," and asked them to set their eyes on "even more challenging goals".

Today's event  also marked an important milestone in the country's 50-year space programme that started with the launch of a small sounding rocket in 1963 from a makeshift launch pad amidst coconut plantations in the southern state of Kerala.

The MOM spacecraft, also known as "Mangalyaan" (Hindi for "Mars Craft"), began its journey to Mars last November after getting aunched atop India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota in southeastern coast of India.  After a 10 month 680 million kilometre trouble-free journey through deep space, Mangalyaan arrived  near the Red planet on 22 September as scheduled to carry out the final operation that would put it in an orbit around Mars.

However, there was still a question whether MOM's main  engine — that had remained idle for nearly 10  months — would re-start to perform the crucial  manoeuvre and slow down the spacecraft enough to be captured into Mars orbit. This question was answered much to the  to the relief of ISRO  in the afternoon of September 22 by  a four-second "test firing" which confirmed that the engine was alive and kicking.

India woke up to see MOM spacecraft fire the main engine together with eight smaller attitude control thrusters for 24 minutes and insert the spacecraft into orbit. ISRO confirmed the successful burn and orbit insertion at 8 a.m. According to ISRO, the spacecraft will establish itself into a highly elliptical orbit of 423 km x 80,000 km, with a period of 3.2 days.

ISRO said Mangalyaan which carries a suite of five scientific instruments will begin its six month mission, taking measurements of  methane gas in the planet’s atmosphere and mapping the surface composition and mineralogy.

MOM created history by being the first interplanetary mission at a low cost — $69 million against MAVEN's $671million — carried out in a short time of  about two years from the original concept to putting it in orbit. With MOM's success, ISRO joins three other space agencies of the US, Russia and Europe who have successfully sent probes to the red planet.