The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) created history by becoming the world’s only space agency to reach Mars on its first attempt. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), unofficially called Mangalyaan, is also the cheapest spacecraft to reach Earth’s neighbour.
MOM was launched atop the indigenously built Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C25 on November 5, 2013, from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. It successfully entered Mars orbit on September 24, 2014, journeying666 million km in 300 days.
The direct distance between Earth and Mars is 224 million km. The spacecraft travelled the extra distance because instead of a straight line it followed a great arc to Mars. The path taken depends on the power of the launch rocket and other related factors.
India is now the first Asian country that has had a successful Mars shot. Only the US, Russian and European space agencies have previously succeeded.
On September 22, 2014, MOM’s main liquid-fuelled engine (the 440 Newton Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM)) was successfully test-fired for 3.968 seconds to ensure it was working. Firing the engine also corrected the spacecraft’s trajectory.
Communication with MOM is a tense and tricky affair because round-trip radio signals take 20 minutes and 47 seconds.
With the engine successfully woken up, so to say, the spacecraft was scheduled to enter Mars’ orbit on September 24, 2014, at 07:17:32 hrs IST. Slotting MOM into orbit was done by firing the main engine, and eight smaller ones, for 24 minutes.
“Burn must have started. All engines must have started,” ISRO tweeted at 7:18 am. “Skip a few heartbeats and standby for confirmation.”
Those skipped heartbeats happened because MOM slid behind Mars, temporarily snapping the radio link between earth and Mars.
The main objective of the mission is to learn how to run an interplanetary mission. MOM will also study Mars’ surface features, morphology, minerals and atmosphere.
India’s Mars Mission cost $74 million. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) Mission of the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration ( NASA)cost $671 million. It entered the orbit of the red planet two days before MOM.
“This is the cheapest inter-planetary mission ever to be undertaken by the world,” said ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan. NASA’s Curiosity, also called Mars Science Laboratory, launched in November, 2011, as a robotic exploration program has been the costliest at $2.5 billion.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to ISRO scientists after the historic event, said: ‘We have dared to reach out into the unknown. And have achieved the near impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists, as well as all my fellow Indians, on this historic occasion. We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and imagination. We have, accurately navigated our spacecraft, through a route known to very few. The odds were stacked against us. Of the 51 missions attempted across the world so far, a mere 21 had succeeded. But we have prevailed!”
Modi said: “The successful Chandrayan mission led to the Mars Orbiter Mission. This must become but a base for challenging the next frontier – of an inter-planetary mission. Let today’s success only drive us with even greater vigour and conviction. Let’s set ourselves even more challenging goals. And strive even harder to achieve them. Let us push our boundaries. And then, push some more.”
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