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India puts first interplanetary probe in orbit at Mars

Posted: September 23, 2014

India's first interplanetary mission went into orbit around Mars late Tuesday, vaulting India into rarefied company among the countries that have successfully sent a mission to the red planet.

Artist's concept of the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft at Mars. Credit: ISRO
Firing its main engine for 24 minutes, the Indian-built spacecraft autonomously guided itself into orbit around Mars as engineers on Earth watched the probe pass out of communications, a planned loss of signal as it moved behind the red planet.

Right on time at 10:30 p.m. EDT (0230 GMT), officials at the mission's control center in Bangalore broke into applause and leapt from their chairs as telemetry from the spacecraft made it to the ground, confirming it was in orbit.

"India has successfully reached Mars!" declared Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who watched the event from an observation gallery at the Bangalore control center.

The Mars mission makes India the fourth entity to put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars, following the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency.

"We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and imagination," Modi said. "We have accurately navigated our spacecraft on a route known to very few, and we have done it from a distance so large that it took a command signal from us to reach it more than it takes sunlight to reach us."

The Mars Orbiter Mission -- known as MOM -- closed in on Mars after a journey of 414 million miles since it departed Earth in November 2013 after blasting off on India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Mission control received signals from the MOM spacecraft 12 minutes after the probe sent the updates, the time it takes for light waves to travel the gulf of 139 million miles separating Earth and Mars.

The probe's main engine was supposed to slow down the MOM spacecraft by 2,457 mph, enough for Martian gravity to pull the satellite into orbit.

An update posted on the Indian Space Research Organization's Facebook page said data from the craft indicated it performed the burn exactly as planned.

"History has been created today," Modi said in remarks to the ISRO control team. "We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists as well as all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion."

The Mars Orbiter Mission was supposed to spiral into an orbit with a high point nearly 50,000 miles from Mars. On the orbit's closest approach to the red planet, the MOM spacecraft would fly at an altitude of just 263 miles.

The solar-powered spacecraft -- about the size of a compact car -- joins six other missions operating at Mars.

NASA's Curiosity and Opportunity rovers are wheeling across the red planet's dusty surface, and the U.S. space agency has three orbiters flying above Mars -- Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the MAVEN atmospheric research craft.

Europe's Mars Express mission has circled Mars since December 2003.

"ISRO joins a elite group of only three other agencies worldwide to have successfully reached the red planet," Modi said. "India, in fact, is the only country to have succeeded in its very first attempt. We put together the spacecraft in record time, within a mere three years from first studying its feasibility."

More than half of the world's attempts to send a craft to Mars have failed, including Russia's most recent Mars mission in 2011 and Japan's Nozomi spacecraft, which missed a chance to enter orbit at Mars in 1999.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory provided communications and navigation support to mission controllers in India.

Scientists built five research instruments to fly to Mars on the Indian orbiter, which officials said is primarily a technology demonstration mission.

Now that the spacecraft is in orbit at Mars, attention will turn toward scientific observations.

The mission carries about 33 pounds, or 15 kilograms, of scientific instrumentation to gather data on the history of the Martian climate and the mineral make-up of its surface.

The mission carries a color imaging camera to return medium-resolution pictures of the Martian surface, a thermal infrared spectrometer to measure the chemical composition of rocks and soils, and instruments to assess the Mars atmosphere, including a methane detector.

Scientific assessments of methane in the Martian atmosphere have returned mixed results.

Methane is a potential indicator of current microbial life on Mars, but some types of geologic activity can also produce trace levels of the gas.

Modi said India developed the $72 million Mars Orbiter Mission at about one-tenth the cost of NASA's $671 million MAVEN mission, which completed its journey to the red planet with a flawless orbit insertion burn Sunday night.

India's low-budget Mars mission cost less than many Hollywood films, Modi said, using the project as a demonstration of the Indian space program's record of success despite modest means.

"Indians are a proud people," Modi said. "Despite our many limitations, we aspire to success. The success of our space program is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation. Our spacecraft has been an example of achievement. It inspires the rest of us to strive for excellence ourselves."

India's space program primarily focuses on funding satellites with earthly applications, such as launch vehicles and satellites for communications, navigation, and climate research.

The Mars Orbiter Mission is ISRO's second space exploration project, after the Chandrayaan 1 probe launched into orbit around the moon in 2008.

India does not have another Mars probe in its plans, but engineers are working on a lunar rover mission.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.