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The Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft attached to its rocket, just before being closed inside the launch shroud. (ISRO)

India Launches Its First Mission to Mars

With hopes to become the first Asian nation to explore the Red Planet

November 5 update: India has launched the Mars Orbiter Mission. The spacecraft is now in its planned Earth orbit, and will depart for Mars on December 1.

In more than half a century of trying, only two space agencies — from the United States and Europe — have managed to pull off entirely successful Mars missions. Attempts by Russia, Japan, England, and China to send spacecraft to the Red Planet have all ended in total or near-total failure.

Now India’s space agency, ISRO, hopes to succeed where others have stumbled.  Next Tuesday, an Indian PSLV rocket is scheduled to lift off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre near the country’s southern tip, carrying the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft, also known unofficially as Mangalyaan — Hindi for “Mars craft.”

It’s a bold step for India, but then so was its Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, which mapped the moon’s surface in 2008. By designing the $70 million (cheap for a Mars orbiter) MOM mission as a technology demonstrator, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has taken the cautious route, and may have improved its odds. Rather than load up a big spacecraft with lots of expensive instruments (which would have required a bigger but more failure-prone rocket called the GSLV), ISRO went with the smaller, more reliable PSLV, and a modest payload.

Mangalyaan carries just five small instruments:  a color camera, an infrared spectrometer for mapping minerals on the Martian surface, a photometer for measuring hydrogen and deuterium in the atmosphere, another spectrometer focused on the upper atmosphere, and an instrument for measuring methane. The last is of special interest to scientists trying to solve the mystery of methane on Mars. Telescopes on Earth and Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft in Martian orbit have detected enough of the gas in the atmosphere to suggest that it’s being produced currently by Martian organisms. But the Curiosity rover came up empty when it sniffed for methane near the surface. The Methane Sensor for Mars on Mangalyaan is designed to detect atmospheric methane down to several parts per billion. “That would be a valuable contribution,” says Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, one of the leaders in studying Martian methane. “However, the technical difficulties should not be overlooked.”

We’ll keep our fingers crossed on that one.

If the spacecraft just arrives safely in Mars orbit and operates there for six to ten months as anticipated, that alone could qualify the mission as a triumph. Chandrayaan-1 was rightly seen as a success, but the mission was cut short by component failures, and operating at Mars is more difficult than orbiting the moon. The rocket engine designed to brake Mangalyaan into Mars orbit when it arrives next September will have to start flawlessly after a 300-day cruise through cold space. Communications, power, and thermal control will all be more complicated than they were with Chandrayaan.

The graveyard of lost Mars missions includes 19 from Russia alone (although, to be fair, half of those were early in the space age). Japan’s Nozomi spacecraft suffered a fuel valve problem in 1998, and never recovered enough to reach Mars orbit. China’s small Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter had hoped to piggyback on the Russian Fobos-Grunt Mars mission in 2011, but both spacecraft were stranded in Earth orbit when a rocket misfired. England’s Beagle 2 lander, launched in 2003, crashed on the Martian surface. NASA has had its failures, too, including the Mars Climate Orbiter lost in 1999 due to a mixup over metric vs. imperial measurements.

So wish the team at ISRO luck. Launch is scheduled for 4:08 a.m. Eastern (U.S.) time on November 5.

Here K. Radhakrishnan, head of the ISRO, gives a lengthy guided tour of the spacecraft for New Delhi Television:

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