By launching its spacecraft to Mars, India hopes to become the fourth space agency to reach the Red Planet. Set to travel for 300 days it is with bated breath we watch Mangalyaan’s progress.

India’s first ever mission to planet Mars, ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (also called ‘Mangalyaan’), was launched on November 5, 2013. Still 300 days away from Mars, Mangalyaan’s journey won’t be an easy one. After all, only about half of all the Mars missions in the world have been successful. Whatever the outcome, the Indian space industry has much to learn from the Mars Orbiter Mission. Here is all you need to know to be able to track Mangalyaan’s progress over the next year.

Map the ride

FIRST, Mangalyaan was injected into an elliptical orbit around Earth by the launch vehicle, PSLV-XL.

Unlike a circular orbit, an elliptical orbit is not equidistant from the centre (in this case, Earth). The point at which it is closest to the centre is called the ‘perigee’, and the point where it is farthest away is called the ‘apogee’.

Using periodic boosts of the spacecraft’s engine while at perigee, the apogee of the elliptical orbit is gradually raised. These periodic firings of Mangalyaan’s engines are referred to as ‘midnight manoeuvres’ because the visibility for ground stations in Bangalore which are monitoring the spacecraft is best around midnight.

The apogee has so far been boosted to over 1 lakh kilometers. The final midnight manoeuvre scheduled for November 30 will have the spacecraft boosted to an apogee of about two lakh kilometres. By now, the spacecraft would have attained a velocity high enough for it to be catapulted out of the Earth-bound orbit and into a sun-centric orbit.

SECOND, Mangalyaan’s goal now is to attain orbit around Mars using minimum fuel. The most efficient way to do this is to take a 690-million km trip in a sun-centric orbit to finally reach Mars orbit in September next year. That is a 300-day journey!

THIRD, Mangalyaan is reoriented into a Martian orbit by slowing it down and firing its engines. This is scheduled to happen on September 24, 2014 at 17:21 hrs. This process involves so many complex steps and timing, that even the smallest mistake can have the orbiter vanish into space.

Fully packed

If everything goes according to plan Mangalyaan will be orbiting Mars next year this time. Though this itself will be a huge achievement for India, there’s still more up Mangalyaan’s sleeve. Inside is some fancy equipment to help the orbiter study Mars.

* Mars Colour Camera (MCC) will provide images of the Martian surface, and will be used to monitor the weather as well as for probing Mars’s satellites.

* Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP) will measure the amount of hydrogen and deuterium in the Martian upper atmosphere. This is important to understand how water was lost from the planet.

* Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS) and Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) are two sensors that will sense geological activity and check for the presence of methane, an important indicator of life, respectively.

* Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA) will study the composition of the Martian upper atmosphere.

Watch the wallet

ISRO is doing all this using Rs. 4.5 billion. That sounds like a huge amount, but it’s cheaper than Boeing’s cheapest aircraft and just a fraction of the cost of the proposed Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue! NASA’s MAVEN Mars probe scheduled for later this month is more than six times as expensive.

How did ISRO cut costs?

l By recycling equipment: This was the 25th flight of the launch vehicle PSLV.

l By minimising fuel usage: Though Mars and Earth are only 55 million km away from each other at their closest, the spacecraft opts to travel 690 million km in a curved manner because a straight-line travel would not have been as energy efficient.

l By using indigenous technology: Almost all the parts of Mangalyaan and the people used to develop them are entirely Indian.

Did you know: India’s first rocket launch pad, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, Thumba, Kerala, was in a coconut plantation. A local church served as main office, the bishop’s house was converted into a workshop and a cattleshed the research lab! Surely, we’ve come a long way!

Source: Wikipedia, Agencies

At stake

Past missions to Mars include flyby missions like Mariner 7 (NASA), orbiters like Mangalyaan (ISRO), landers like Viking 1 (NASA) and rovers like Curiosity (NASA). Though more than half of all Mars missions have been failures, the mistakes made helped scientists evolve their design and plan future successful missions.

Why some missions failed:

Bad timing: Though the Russian Kosmos 419 (1971) reached Earth’s orbit, it never reached Mars’ orbit because of a wrong ignition time setting. Instead of being set for 1.5 hours after launch, it was accidentally set for 1.5 years after launch. The spacecraft soon re-entered Earth’s orbit and disintegrated.

Faulty software: Bad mathematics may not kill you, but they can kill spacecraft! NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter (1998) disintegrated because at one instance, its software used the wrong units (pounds, instead of Newtons). This caused the spacecraft to be placed too close to Mars where atmospheric stresses destroyed it.

Solar flares and fuel shortage: The communication systems of Japan’s Nozomi orbiter (1998) were disrupted by powerful solar flares. It also damaged the heat control system causing the fuel to freeze. It was unable to attain Mars orbit and operation was terminated.

Nobody really knows: Just three days away from Mars, all communication was suddenly lost with NASA’s Mars Observer (1992). For months, scientists could not explain what became of the spacecraft, but investigations finally concluded that a fuel and gas leak had probably sent the spacecraft into an uncontrollable spin damaging critical electrical circuits.