MOM Logoby Nur Hussein, staff writer

Hot on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN is another Mars orbiter; India’s Mangalyaan, or the Mars Orbital Mission (MOM) which has traversed 484 million miles (780 million kilometers) to Mars and is now successfully in orbit around the red planet. This craft is from India’s state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and was launched on 5 November 2013 from Sriharikota, India. The craft was launched on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a homegrown rocket developed by India’s ISRO. At 7:24 a.m. IST, the Mangalyaan probe successfully accomplished insertion into a Martian orbit. This is the first time any nation has successfully carried out a Mars mission on its first try. ISRO’s headquarters and mission control in Bangalore was visited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who observed the orbital insertion with the mission crew. The lag between Earth and the MOM craft is about 12.5 minutes in each direction, thus like the MAVEN mission, it was a nail-biting affair before orbital insertion was confirmed.

The mission’s budget was $73 million USD, a fraction of the $671 million of NASA’s MAVEN mission. The reason for this is the cheaper parts and labor available in India helped ISRO manage to perform a similar mission for a tenth of the cost. However, the equipment payload for ISRO’s orbiter is also relatively less complex than MAVEN’s. The Mangalyaan was designed primarily to develop India’s technological capabilities for interplanetary travel of probes to Mars. Now that it has reached Mars, its mission is to analyze the Martian atmosphere for methane, and to observe the Martian surface topology. The payload for the probe consists of five sets of scientific instruments:

  • Mars Color Camera (MCC) – For imaging the Martian surface.
  • Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS) – Measures the thermal emission of the soil and minerals.
  • Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) – Measures the methane content of the atmosphere.
  • Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA) – A quadruple mass spectrometer.
  • Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP) – Measures deuterium and hydrogen content, and is useful for gathering data about where Mars’ missing water went over the ages

At launch, the mass of the craft was 1,337 kg which included 852 kg of propellant fuel. It spent about a month in low earth orbit and performed a series of orbit-raising maneuvers. On 30 November 2013, it finally started its journey to Mars via a trans-Mars injection, which flung the craft into the trajectory that let it be captured by Mars’ gravitational field, after it was sufficiently slowed down by the thruster burns of its engine. Three of the four course-correcting maneuvers planned by ISRO were carried out by the probe to keep the craft on the right trajectory (the fourth was deemed unnecessary as the probe was well on course at the scheduled trajectory correction time).

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The onboard engine is a modified version of ISRO’s Liquid Apogee Motor which was developed by the Indian agency for over 8 years. It is capable of generating 440 Newtons of thrust. On Monday, one of the major challenges of the mission was achieved without a hitch; restarting the dormant engines after 300 days of being idle. The engines fired briefly for 4 seconds, and made a brief course correction that took the craft to its destination.

ISRO is India’s national space exploration agency. It grew out of an Indian state effort called the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), set up in 1962 with the drive by first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and with support from the United States. In 1969, INCOSPAR led to the creation of ISRO. Initially, ISRO satellite launches hitched rides on Soviet satellites. By 1980, India had developed its own launch capabilities. With the success of the Mars Orbital Mission, India is now the fourth space agency which has successfully launched missions to the red planet, after the Soviets, NASA and the ESA.

After the succesful insertion, Prime Minister gave a speech so rousing, it had me quelling with pride, and I’m not even Indian! He said, in part:

We have reached out and achieved the near-impossible! I congratulate all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion. Traveling an incredible distance … we have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise. We have navigated a spacecraft through a route known only to very few … Out of 51 space missions attempted so far, a mere 21 had succeeded so far, but we have prevailed … With this spectacular success, India joins the elite group of only 3 other agencies to have succeeded in putting a craft in orbit around Mars … and India has succeeded on our first attempt.

Uncertainty is part of the journey …the thrill of discovery is not for the faint-hearted. Innovation, after all, by its very nature, involves risk. As you are trying to do something that has not been done before, it is a leap into the dark … space is, indeed, the biggest unknown out there.

To the scientists at ISRO, you have made it a habit of achieving the impossible! You have that self-reliance … often in the face of hostile circumstances … You have honored our forefathers and inspired our future generations. You truly deserve all the love and admiration you get from a proud nation … the success of our space program is a symbol of what we are capable of as a nation. You have advanced the quality of life, quality of government, the quality of humanity, strengthening our economy and improving our lives.

We also have a great responsibility to our ancestors to understand the mysteries of the heavens. Modern India must continue!

My dear friends, let me conclude by saying that in contrast with the nature of western philosophy, in eastern philosophy, we know that there is no beginning or end. There is only a continuous, unending cycle of dispassionate reason. Let today’s success drive us with even greater vigor ….push our boundaries, and then push some more. Push some more. In the words of Rabindranath Tagore [from the poem “Let My Country Awake”]: ‘Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action/Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake’.”


Nur Hussein
Nur Hussein

Nur is a tinkerer of programmable things, an apprentice in an ancient order of technomages. He enjoys fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, and Lego in his spare time. His favourite authors are Asimov and Tolkien. He also loves Celtic and American folk music. You can follow him on twitter: @nurhussein