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Indian spacecraft soars on historic journey to Mars

Posted: November 5, 2013

India's workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle blasted off Tuesday with the country's first Mars mission, a low-budget project marking India's foray into an elite club of space powers.

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lifts off at 0908 GMT (4:08 a.m. EST; 2:38 p.m. local time) from India's Satish Dhawan Space Center. Credit: ISRO
The 146-foot-tall rocket, specifically tailored for the Mars mission, launched at 0908 GMT (4:08 a.m. EST) Tuesday from the Satish Dhawan Space Center, India's spaceport on Sriharikota Island about 50 miles north of Chennai.

The launch took place at 2:38 p.m. local time, and the PSLV's six-strap on boosters and core solid-fueled motor combined to produce more than 2 million pounds of thrust to push the rocket through low-level clouds on an easterly course over the Bay of Bengal.

A live broadcast of the launch beamed around the world showed spectators in the control center applauding as the rocket hit its marks during a 44-minute mission ending with the deployment of the 2,950-pound Mars-bound probe at 0952 GMT (4:52 a.m. EST).

The launch marked the 25th PSLV mission since 1993 and its 21st consecutive success.

"I'm extremely happy to announce that the PSLV-C25 vehicle has placed the Mars orbiter spacecraft very precisely into an elliptical orbit around Earth," said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization. "This is the 25th flight of our PSLV, and it has been a new and complex mission design to ensure that we would be able to move the Mars orbiter spacecraft from the orbit of Earth to the orbit of Mars with minimum energy."

The PSLV placed the Mars probe in an orbit with a low point of 153 miles and a high point of 14,643 miles, very close to the rocket's target parameters, according to Kunhi Krishnan, the PSLV's mission director.

"PSLV has once again proven its mettle that it can perform any kind of mission," said S. Ramakrishnan, director of India's Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, a rocket development facility. "This was only the first step for this Mars mission ... [but] crossing this major first milestone is very important to us."

Indian officials confirmed the spacecraft deployed its solar panels to generate power following launch.

The flawless launch did not put the Mars probe on a direct course to the red planet. Six firings of the probe's on-board propulsion system, derived from a thruster demonstrated on India's communications satellites, will raise the spacecraft's orbit over the next few weeks and send it on a trajectory to escape the grasp of Earth's gravity. Radhakrishnan said the final Earth departure maneuver is scheduled for Dec. 1.

Diagram of the Mars spacecraft's orbit around Earth following its successful launch. Credit: ISRO
"Then in September 2014, we expect this spacecraft to be around Mars, and the challenge then is to precisely reduce the velocity and get into orbit. Once that is achieved, we have five beautiful scientific instruments, and we expect to provide scientific knowledge to the Indian scientific community and to humanity."

Developed in less than two years for $73 million, the Mars Orbiter Mission aims to make ISRO the fourth space agency to put a probe into orbit around Mars, following in the footsteps of the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency.

"I want to salute the entire ISRO community who made this possible in a very limited time," Radhakrishnan said in post-launch remarks at the PSLV control center in Sriharikota.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued his congratulations on the launch.

"I congratulate all scientists of the Indian Space Research Organization for the successful launch today of the Mars Orbiter Mission, the most complex space mission of the country," Singh said in a statement. "The successful launch is the first step towards a successful mission and is testimony to ISRO's mastery of the launch vehicle technology.

"I wish the ISRO scientists all the best for the delicate next steps in this ambitious and long mission to Mars which will be the most significant milestone in our space program and I remain confident that they will do the country proud," Singh said.

The probe's arrival at Mars is fixed on Sept. 24, 2014, when the spacecraft's main engine will ignite to guide itself into a unique high-altitude orbit around the red planet.

Operating from a perch taking the spacecraft from just above the Martian atmosphere to a peak altitude of nearly 50,000 miles, the Mars probe will survey the planet with five science instruments, gathering data on the history of the Martian climate and the mineral make-up of its surface.

The mission carries a color imaging camera to return medium-resolution pictures of the Martian surface, a thermal infrared spectrometer to measure the chemical composition of the surface, and instruments to assess the Mars atmosphere, including a methane detector.

Scientific assessments of methane in the Martian atmosphere have returned mixed results.

Methane is a potential indicator of current microbial life on Mars, but some types of geologic activity can also produce trace levels of the gas.

Following up on detections from ground-based telescopes and Europe's Mars Express orbiter, NASA's Curiosity rover measured no methane in the Martian atmosphere when it sucked air into its internal instrument suite on several occasions since landing in August 2012.

Photo of the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft before launch. Credit: ISRO
"One of the important objectives of the scientific part of this mission is to see the presence of methane or otherwise," Radhakrishnan told India's NDTV television network before launch. "We have an instrument for that purpose. We also want to see, if methane is present, is it because of geological activity or biological activity?"

But the mission's primary objective is not scientific; it is technological.

"First and foremost, India should be able to orbit a spacecraft around Mars," Radhakrishnan told NDTV before launch. "We are moving from Earth's orbit to the orbit of Mars through a long cruise phase around the sun. It's almost 400 million kilometers (248 million miles) away, and the spacecraft has to travel nearly 780 million kilometers (484 million miles)."

Indian engineers added autonomous capabilities to the spacecraft to account for the communications lag between Earth and Mars, which will be as much as 21 minutes during the mission. The probe is designed to detect faults and put itself into safe mode if something goes wrong, a feature officials say will ensure the spacecraft is in a stable configuration while ground controllers resolve problems.

In an effort to reduce the risk of a long-distance mission to Mars, engineers authored new software code and added redundant components to the probe's propulsion system to ensure it would survive the 10-month cruise and still function for the make-or-break orbit insertion burn.

NASA is helping India with navigation and communications support from experts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees all of the U.S. missions currently at Mars.

NASA's Deep Space Network antennas will track the Indian probe throughout the mission, helping Indian engineers and scientists collect telemetry on the spacecraft's health and reap the benefits of its scientific data.

India's Mars mission launch comes less than two weeks before NASA's next Mars orbiter is set to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission is scheduled for launch Nov. 18 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. MAVEN will arrive at Mars two days before India's orbiter to survey the red planet's atmosphere for at least one year.

Bruce Jakosky, the University of Colorado scientist in charge of MAVEN's research mission, said U.S. and Indian officials have held preliminary discussions to collaborate on some overlapping objectives once the spacecraft arrive at Mars.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.