India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (nicknamed Mangalyaan, or “Mars craft,” in the Indian press) is about to hit one of its biggest hurdles. After more than 300 days in transit, the spacecraft is scheduled to enter a stable orbit around Mars on September 24. Mangalyaan is India’s first trip to another planet (the Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission went well in 2008), and is meant to be the first in a series of planetary explorers. In fact, the mission’s primary purpose is to demonstrate the technology for such missions. Rather than develop a new spacecraft, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) based its Mars craft on the Chandrayaan design.
Mangalyaan’s arrival in Mars orbit will be equivalent to NASA’s infamous “seven minutes of terror” in 2012, when Curiosity touched down on the Martian surface, and controllers could only sit and bite their nails while waiting for a signal from the spacecraft.
On September 22, Mangalyaan’s main engine will be switched on briefly for testing. Then, assuming all goes well, two days later (at 7:18 a.m. India Standard Time on September 24, or 9:48 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on September 23) the spacecraft will orient itself and start a 24-minute engine burn that will neatly place it into a highly elliptical orbit around Mars. Ground controllers will have to wait about 12 nerve-wracking minutes for the confirmation to reach Earth.
The mission has so far gone more smoothly than expected; a recent scheduled en-route course correction was canceled because it was deemed unnecessary, and everything on board the spacecraft appears to be working normally.
The spacecraft’s color camera will be turned on September 22 to start sending images back to Earth. Later ISRO will turn on the Methane Sensor for Mars, which will address a question of great interest to planetary scientists and astrobiologists. On Earth methane is a telltale sign of life, but the gas is also emitted by geological processes, and distinguishing between the two is an ongoing problem for Mars scientists.
If Mangalyaan finds measureable methane, “it would be a very powerful demonstration, especially if they found the source of emitted methane,” says Michael Mumma, director of the Center for Astrobiology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “That is really a critical step, we really need to be able to put the next group of landers in a place where methane may be occurring.”