India's Mars Mission Enters Last Lap, Faces Crucial Test

By Aditya-Kalra 19 September 2014

NEW DELHI — India’s first mission to Mars will attempt to put a spacecraft in orbit around the red planet next week, in a crucial test of a low-cost project carrying the country’s hopes to join the leaders of a global space race.

A successful outcome for the $74-million mission would stiffen Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resolve to build new space launch facilities capable of handling heavier satellites, to make India a stronger player in the space technology market.

Launched last November, the Mars Orbiter Mission, called Mangalyaan, aims to study the planet’s surface and mineral composition, and scan its atmosphere for methane, a chemical strongly tied to life on Earth.

If the spacecraft does manage to enter orbit around Mars on Sept. 24, India would become the first country to succeed on its first try. European, U.S. and Russian probes have managed to orbit or land on the planet, but only after several attempts.

“Confidence is high,” V. Koteswara Rao, scientific secretary at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), told Reuters. “All the operations done so far are successful and all the parameters measured are normal.”

ISRO has already uploaded commands to help the spacecraft automatically enter orbit on the morning of Sept. 24.

Two days before that, scientists will run a four-second test of a main engine that has been idle for about 300 days, and make a small course correction, Rao said.

However, experts say it will be challenging to get the trajectory right and cut the craft’s speed from its current rate of 22 km (13.7 miles) per second to allow it to enter orbit. So also would be the task of receiving the faint signals it emits.

“It’s like hitting a one-rupee coin about a hundred kilometers away, and that is tough,” said Mayank N. Vahia, a scientist in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

ISRO has prepared a contingency plan. If the main engine fails to restart, eight small fuel-powered thrusters will be used to put the spacecraft into orbit around Mars.

Low-Cost Model & China

India launched its space program five decades ago and developed its own rocket technology after Western powers imposed sanctions for a nuclear weapons test in 1974. In 2009, its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the moon.

Although facing strong competition from neighbor China, India aspires to be a low-cost supplier of space technology and grab a bigger slice of a more than $300-billion industry.

India has so far launched 40 foreign satellites, many of them for advanced nations.

Still, China has an edge, as it can put heavier satellites into orbit with its bigger launchers.

Modi aims to change that. In June, he hailed the Mars mission’s low cost, saying it was less than the budget of the Hollywood space movie ‘Gravity’.

A successful Mars mission would boost the global standing of India’s state-run space agency.

“It increases the prestige and reliability of India as a spacefaring nation whose rockets and payloads are reliable enough for other countries to use,” said Vahia.

India’s Mangalyaan cost roughly a tenth of NASA’s Mars mission Maven that will attempt to enter orbit around the planet three days earlier on Sept. 21.

Despite its recent success, India’s space program has often drawn criticism as Asia’s third-largest economy still ranks poorly on basic social indicators of poverty and hunger.