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India putting final touches on Mars-bound spacecraft

Posted: October 7, 2013

India's first Mars probe is preparing for launch in late October on a trial run to the red planet to lay the technological foundation for future Indian deep space missions.

Artist's concept of the Mars Orbiter Mission. Credit: ISRO
Set for liftoff as soon as Oct. 28, the Mars Orbiter Mission will demonstrate deep space navigation and communications, interplanetary travel, spacecraft autonomy, and the complex make-or-break rocket burn to place the spacecraft in orbit around Mars.

Only the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency have successfully dispatched robots to Mars before. The Indian Space Research Organization hopes to be the fourth space agency to accomplish the feat.

The Indian orbiter also carries a small camera to return medium-resolution color imagery of the Martian terrain, a thermal infrared spectrometer to measure the chemical composition of the surface, and instruments to assess the Mars atmosphere, including a methane detector.

But Indian officials rank the orbiter's technological objectives higher than its science goals, according to J.N. Goswami, director of ISRO's Physical Research Laboratory and a top scientist on the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Goswami gave a briefing on the mission in March at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

Engineers put together the Mars Orbiter Mission in quick time. Goswami said ISRO approved the mission in August 2011, with all the hardware assembled on the orbiter in less than two years.

Designers based the spacecraft on the Chandrayaan 1 lunar orbiter, which India successfully placed in orbit around the moon in November 2008 and successfully operated until August 2009.

India's Mars-bound spacecraft undergoes electromagnetic interference testing. Credit: ISRO
The $73 million Mars Orbiter Mission has a launch window opening Oct. 28 and extending through Nov. 19.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is providing communications and navigation support for the mission, which requires the use of NASA's Deep Space Network, a set of three tracking stations in California, Spain and Australia.

Indian scientists last week feared the partial shutdown of the U.S. government - caused by political wrangling in Washington - could threaten India's access to NASA's tracking and navigation expertise.

"NASA/JPL authorities have reaffirmed support for the Mars Orbiter Mission as planned and stated that the current U.S. government partial shutdown will not affect the schedule of Mars Orbiter Mission," ISRO said in a statement released Saturday.

The spacecraft arrived at the Satish Dhawan Space Center on India's east coast Thursday after an overland trip from its factory and test facility in Bangalore.

Over the next three weeks, technicians will add rocket fuel to the spacecraft, which is about the size of a compact car. Then engineers will hoist the 2,976-pound probe atop an amped-up version of India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle called the PSLV XL.

Boosted by enlarged strap-on rocket motors, the PSLV will hurl the Mars-bound spacecraft into an elliptical loop with a peak altitude about 14,300 miles above Earth.

The Mars Orbiter Mission will propel itself out of the grasp of Earth's gravity with six engine burns, concluding the escape maneuvers around Nov. 30 and embarking on a 10-month interplanetary cruise to the red planet.

Arrival at Mars is scheduled for Sept. 21, 2014, one day before the arrival NASA's MAVEN Mars orbiter, which is on track for launch directly to Mars from Florida on Nov. 18.

The Indian spacecraft will enter an orbit ranging in altitude from 234 miles to nearly 50,000 miles above Mars, completing a lap around the planet every 3.2 days.