When spacecraft specialists took their seats at the unearthly hour of 1 a.m. on Saturday at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore, they were in a “confident but normal mood.”

As they sent out tele-commands at 1.27 a.m. to the propulsion system on the Mars Orbiter to fire, the engine came to life. It fired for 244 seconds and boosted the spacecraft’s apogee from 1,18,642 km to 1,92,874 km. The scientists broke into cheers as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) succeeded in raising the orbit of its Mars spacecraft for the fifth time after it was put into the earth-bound orbit by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25) on November 5.

“Everything went perfectly and as planned on Saturday,” ISRO spokesman Deviprasad Karnik said.

The final orbit-raising manoeuvre on December 1 will shoot the spacecraft out of the earth-centric orbit into a sun-centric orbit. From December 1, the spacecraft will sojourn around the Sun for 300 days before its “rendezvous” with Mars on September 24, 2014.

On that day, the ISRO will face the biggest challenge of its Mars Orbiter Mission. ISTRAC engineers will give commands to the propulsion system to fire after it has idled for 300 days to slow down the spacecraft and insert it into the Martian orbit with a peri-apsis of 365 km and an apo-apsis of 80,000 km.

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan had stressed that “the primary objective” of the mission “is to put the spacecraft in the Martian orbit.” “If we are able to put our orbiter around Mars, 85 per cent of our objective is achieved. Once it is successfully done, we will be able to do scientific experiments.”

The orbiter has five instruments to detect methane on Mars (an indicator of microbial life) and to study the planet’s surface features, mineralogy, upper atmosphere and morphology.

More In: Science | Sci-Tech | News | National