After a journey of over 660 million kilometres that took 10 months, >India’s Mars Orbiter Mission has swept with effortless ease into orbit around the Red Planet, making this country the first to achieve such a feat in a maiden attempt. Probes despatched to Earth’s sibling planet over the last half a century have often run into trouble of one kind or another, with only less than half of those spacecraft ending the voyage successfully. Thus far, only the United States, the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency have succeeded in doing so. India and its space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), now proudly join their ranks. Although ISRO could draw on its experience with the lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1, launched six years back, the challenges involved in sending a spacecraft all the way to Mars are far greater. That includes propelling the spacecraft with sufficient velocity to escape Earth’s gravitational grasp, guiding it along the proper trajectory over vast distances, and then slowing it down sufficiently to go into orbit around that planet. The spacecraft had to be capable of operating autonomously as communication signals to and from ground stations could take minutes to reach it. All of this has gone remarkably smoothly, including the orbit insertion manoeuvre with the spacecraft’s main engine, which had lain idle for almost 300 days. It is a tribute to ISRO and the professionalism of its scientists and engineers that every minute detail for such a complex mission could be attended to in the course of a project completed in just one and a half years. India’s Mars effort costs Rs.460 crore, an economical price tag by Western standards.
The Indian probe joins four spacecraft already circling Mars, including America’s MAVEN (acronym for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) that went into orbit just two days earlier, as well as two U.S. rovers exploring the planet’s surface. The Indian and U.S. space agencies are holding discussions on possible scientific collaboration. Success with the Mars Orbiter will give ISRO the confidence and capability to undertake more challenging missions. However, if the country wants to send heavier and more powerful spacecraft to Mars, it cannot do so with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that was used for the current mission. However, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) equipped with an indigenous cryogenic stage made its first successful flight only in January this year, and a few more flights will be necessary to establish its reliability. Further improvements to the rocket may also prove essential. ISRO has achieved much, and more will be expected of it in the years to come.