India’s Mars Orbiter Mission has just made history. The Indian Mars Orbiter Spacecraft crossed a major milestone by successfully entering into orbit around planet Mars, marking the completion of a 680 million kilometer journey through the Solar System. The journey took almost one year. This marks one of the biggest achievements of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as the unmanned probe ventured into space the farthest of any previous Indian spacecraft.
Before Wednesday, only the United States, Europe and the Soviets have successfully sent a spacecraft to Mars. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, watched from the space agency’s nerve center in Bangalore and proudly said “We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and human imagination”. The spacecraft is the second to reach Mars this week, NASA’s MAVEN arrived two days ago.
The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) operated autonomously throughout the orbit-insertion sequence. At the time Mars was 139 million miles away, so radio confirmation of the craft’s arrival took 12 and ½ minutes to reach Earth. Adding further to the drama, the spacecraft was both out of view from the tracking stations on Earth and hidden in the planet’s shadow during portions of the engine firing.
Mission engineers and scientists, who’d gathered at the Indian Space Research Organization’s control center in the southern city of Bangalore, applauded when the main engine and eight smaller thrusters flared to life.
MOM’s path to Mars was not simple. After launch on November 23, 2013, the spacecraft made half a dozen trips around Earth in loops to build enough speed to send it on an interplanetary trajectory. Now that the MOM is in Martian orbit, it will begin its mission of studying the surface and atmosphere of Mars with a particular emphasis on measuring the methane in the Martian atmosphere; a key indicator of microbial life. The mission’s primary objective is not to make pioneering scientific discoveries about the Red Planet, instead its mission is to demonstrate the ability to design a craft capable of interplanetary travel. While the craft is there it can potentially deliver important discoveries. Including MOM’s successful rendezvous, the number of active spacecraft now studying the planet rises to eight. Who knows…….maybe they’ll find little green men up there too.