Mangalyaan, India's Mars Orbiter

Bhama Devi Ravi looks at the project in detail and says that if India succeeds in the mission, it will be the first Asian country to achieve an interplanetary mission, joining the elite club of the US, Russia and Europe.

Published: 18th November 2013 03:46 PM  |   Last Updated: 18th November 2013 03:46 PM   |  A+A-


It was an extended Diwali for India on November 5 when the Indian Space research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched Mangalyaan , its spacecraft bound for Planet Mars,  from Sriharikota. This is India’s first interplanetary project. It took 500 scientists and 15 months of hard work to ensure the smooth liftoff of the Mars Orbiter.  If all goes well, Mangalyaan (a Sanskrit word, translating as Mars craft in English) will enter the Mars orbit on September  24, 2014, 300 days from the day of its launch and after a journey of nearly million 700 million kilometres.

India among the elite

Accomplished at a cost of around  Rs 450 crore, which in itself is an achievement as the most economical orbiter till date, mission Mangalyaan is an ambitious leap for India’s space programme.

If Mangalyaan succeeds in its mission, the Mars Orbiter would make India the first Asian country to have an interplanetary orbiter launch to its credit. Only the former Soviet Space Program, NASA and the European Space Agency have achieved interplanetary missions. Japan and China are the other Asian countries that attempted Mars missions, but they resulted in failure.

The objective

Finding methane on the Martian surface is a main scientific objective of the Mangalyaan mission apart from exploring the mineral composition of the surface. Methane is a gas and its presence is an indicator of biological presence.

Another objective is to demonstrate to the world India’s capability to design, develop, test and manage the operations of an interplanetary mission. Mangalyaan is an indigenously designed product though some key components were imported. With its cost effective production of Mangalyaan-a similar orbiter by NASA would cost at least three times what it did-India has shown that it is a production destination for other countries wanting to explore other planets.

How it works

Mangalyaan will be in the Earth’s orbit for about a month, during which time its orbit levels will be raised in six phases, after which it will be interjected into the Mars orbit. 

The craft with a liquid propellant engine capable of producing 440 N thrust will deploy the Hohmann Transfer Orbit to catapult itself towards its destination. This essentially involves raising the speed of the craft progressively, reaching higher and higher orbital levels till it can finally escape Earth’s gravity and move towards its destination.

Mangalyaan’s progress

Originally scheduled for October 19, the launch was postponed since a crucial telemetry ship could not reach its designated position near the Fiji islands due to cyclones in the Pacific Ocean. The rescheduled launch went off smoothly on November 5.

After its launch routine checks were carried out at the first orbit position and then the Mars-bound vehicle was progressively raised to an apogee of 71,636 km in three stages by using liquid propellant. There was a small holdup on November 10 when the elevation to above 1,00,000 km was attempted. This was however remedied through a supplementary firing on November 12. Two more elevations are planned before, on Dec 1, the orbiter is finally on its way to Mars.

It is important to note that Mars missions can be planned only once in 26 months to coincide with a time when Mars is closest to earth.

Hence the September 2014 rendezvous of Mangalyaan with the Red Planet is crucial. The liquid propellant carried by the craft will finally be used up when the craft is injected into its orbit position over Mars.

Indian space odyssey

The Indian space effort and the setting up of the ISRO is over 50 years old. Efforts were intensified post the 1974 nuclear tests by India and the imposition of various sanctions by western powers. The Indian space effort is primarily focused on providing communication and weather mapping infrastructure to the country. However, the in house capabilities at ISRO provide the country with very attractive options in terms of various programmes.

Of particular importance was the Chandrayaan lunar probe which operated between 2008 and 2009 and was successful in finding water on the moon.Mangalyaan is intrinsically different from Chandrayaan in its objectives. Chandrayaan was a scientific mission while Mangalyaan, though it carries scientific equipment weighing 15 kilos, is primarily a mission to demonstrate and prove technologies.

ISRO hopes to establish that it is capable of designing an interplanetary orbiter capable of performing earth-bound manoeuvres. It will also establish its capability in deep space communication, navigation and mission planning. Incorporation of autonomous features to enable the craft to handle contingencies is the third capability that will be established.

Controversy over Mangalyaan

Since its launch, Mangalyaan has had its share of controversy. Some criticised the venture as being extravagant, saying the Rs 450 crore spent on it could have better utilised to alleviate poverty. However, experts have pointed out that India has proved its capability in producing economical launch vehicles. (Mangalyaan was launched from a modified PSLV launch vehicle). This is a very low number in comparison to what it takes other space agencies like NASA to launch a satellite. Experts believe that India is in a highly competitive position in this regard. Currently the space-related market is estimated to be worth about $208 billion. It is expected to grow to over $300 billion in the coming decade and if India does the right things, it can hope to capture at least a quarter of this market. This would be a huge opportunity, considering ISRO’s annual spend is just about $1 billion!

It should also be mentioned that the Indian space effort is not totally self-sufficient as of now. India still has to import certain components and, crucially, it has to rely on the USA to monitor the satellite once it nears Mars as it lacks deep space monitoring systems. With all its constraints, India has managed to demonstrate it has the knowhow, and if Mangalyaan accomplishes all that it has set out to do, it will be a huge achievement for India.


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