Caption: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft attached to the fourth stage of the PSLV-C25 and ready for heat shield closure. Credit: ISRO photo

BANGALORE, India — After a trouble-free journey through space lasting nearly 10 months, India’s first interplanetary probe, Mangalyaan, is set to enter into orbit around Mars Sept. 24 — two days after the scheduled arrival of NASA’s Maven mission. 

The Indian Space Research Organisation announced Sept. 15 that the Mangalyaan spacecraft, weighing 445 kilograms not including fuel, is in excellent health and that commands required for its insertion into Mars orbit have been uploaded to its onboard computer.

Designed and developed by ISRO at a cost of $69 million, Mangalyaan was launched into an initial parking orbit around Earth Nov. 5, 2013, by ISRO’s PSLV rocket. The spacecraft was injected into a heliocentric trajectory toward the red planet Dec. 1 following a series of orbit-raising maneuvers.

ISRO said Mangalyaan’s 440-newton liquid-fueled engine will be fired early Sept. 24 — when the spacecraft is 423 kilometers from the martian surface — to slow its velocity from 22.2 kilometers per second to 2.14 meters per second, allowing it to be captured into martian orbit. ISRO said the spacecraft will be placed in an elliptical orbit with a perigee of 423 kilometers, an apogee of 80,000 kilometers and an orbital period of 3.2 Earth days. 

Confirmation of a successful orbital insertion will come via ground stations operated by ISRO in Byalalu near Bangalore; NASA in Goldstone, California; and the European Space Agency in Madrid. 

“Bringing the liquid engine alive after 297 days of sleep is the next big challenge,” ISRO spokesman Deviprasad Karnik told SpaceNews. He said the engine will be test fired for four seconds Sept. 22 to gauge its readiness for the orbital-insertion maneuver. 

Should there be an issue with the main engine, ISRO has a backup plan that involves firing the Mangalyaan spacecraft’s eight 22-newton thrusters, Koteeswara Rao, ISRO scientific secretary, told SpaceNews.

During its planned six-month mission in Mars orbit, Mangalyaan, which carries five scientific payloads, will measure methane in the planet’s atmosphere, map the surface composition and mineralogy, and gather data to help scientists understand why and when Mars lost the liquid water that once flowed there. 

If all goes well, India will become first Asian country to deliver a probe to Mars. In doing so, it will join a club that currently includes only Russia, the United States and Europe. 


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Based in Bangalore, Killugudi S. Jayaraman holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He was formerly science editor of the...