India’s space program made history Tuesday as their spacecraft reaches Mars orbit, a feat only done before by the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency. Mission control personnel in Bangalore watched anxiously, then burst into applause, as Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or Mangalyaan (Mars craft in Hindi) successfully executed a 24-minute engine and thruster burn to maneuver into orbit around the Red Planet.
“History has been created today,” an enthusiastic Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister, declared while wearing a symbolic red vest to celebrate reaching the Red Planet. Not only did MOM reach its destination, but the fruitful effort made India the first nation to succeed on its first try to reach Mars.
India had the advantage of building on knowledge from efforts from the other space programs that have reached the planet. But, the facts about the low-budget mission are pretty amazing. It only took four years from feasibility study to reaching Mars. The car-sized probe’s whole mission cost an amazingly low $74-84 million. For perspective, the Hollywood movie Gravity about a space mission cost more to make and NASA’s Mars Maven mission cost $671 million.
India kept its costs low by relying on technologies it has used before. They also employed a smaller rocket to save on fuel for the effort to first put the spacecraft into Earth orbit.
The long journey to Mars began on Nov. 5, 2013 when a PSLV-C25 rocket lifted off from Sriharikota with the spacecraft in its nosecone. It left Earth orbit on Dec. 1. Since then, MOM has had an uneventful, perfect journey. “Everything is going on smoothly as programmed and the spacecraft’s health is normal,” said ISRO mission director M. Annadurai.
One tense moment Monday was when the craft had to reignite its main engine, which had not been fired up since leaving Earth’s orbit eight months prior. Additionally, for most of the time the engine was firing to send the craft into orbit around the Red Planet, MOM was behind Mars and the time delay in transmitting radio signals added to the drama in Mission Control before success was assured.
For months, if not years, MOM will be a satellite of Mars, going around the planet in an elliptical orbit. The craft will be used for scientific research, clicking pictures and sniffing out details on the atmosphere and surface of the planet. The spacecraft has a methane sensor to look for the gas, which could be evidence of life. A Lyman alpha photometer will measure the abundance of deuterium and hydrogen in the atmosphere to learn more about previous water presence on Mars. In addition, a thermal infrared spectrometer will research minerals, heat emission and other details about the planet.
While many in the country celebrate the victory for India’s space program has drawn criticism considering the poverty in the country. But the nation only spends about $1.2 billion a year on its space effort, which is approximately a dollar per person in the country. The primary aim of the successful effort that enabled an Indian spacecraft to reach orbit around Mars, according to some, is to showcase India’s low-budget space technology, with the ultimate goal of luring more business from the $324 billion global space market.
By Dyanne Weiss