Tuesday, September 23, 2014

India gears up for big Mars moment

India hopes to make history shortly by putting its first satellite in orbit around Mars.

The Mangalyaan robotic probe is bearing down on the Red Planet following a 10 month cruise from Earth.

Wednesday will see the spacecraft light its main engine and small thrusters in a bid to slow itself down.

If this 24-minute manoeuvre removes sufficient speed, the planet's gravity should capture Mangalyaan into an elliptical orbit.

Only the US, Europe and Russia have succeeded previously in sending missions to Mars.

Indeed the Americans placed their latest satellite, Maven, at Mars just this Monday.

If Mangalyaan survives orbit insertion, it will set about taking pictures of the planet and studying its atmosphere.

One key goal is to try to detect methane in the Martian air, which could be an indicator of biological activity at, or more likely just below, the surface.

Wednesday's critical engine burn will be initiated at 07:30 India Standard Time (02:00 GMT; 03:00 BST).

Concern in recent weeks centred on whether the big motor would actually work reliably, having not been used since despatching Mangalyaan from Earth's orbit last December.

But that issue was put to bed earlier this week when engineers conducted a four-second mini-burn on the engine to prove all systems were still functional.

As Mangalyaan engages 'the brakes', it will go behind Mars as viewed from both the Sun and Earth, meaning there will be a period when the satellite is in darkness and also out of contact with Earth.

There are sure to be some anxious moments before ground controllers receive confirmation of the success or failure of the insertion.

Mangalyaan - more formally referred to as Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) - was launched from the Sriharikota spaceport on the coast of the Bay of Bengal on 5 November 2013.

The total cost has been put at 4.5bn rupees ($74m; £45m), which makes it one of the cheapest interplanetary space missions ever.

On a visit to Sriharikota in June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went so far as to say that the '[making of the] Hollywood movie Gravity cost more than our Mars mission'.

Nonetheless, the Mangalyaan venture has been criticised both within and outside India by those who believe the expenditure would have been better directed at millions of Indians who still live without electricity and proper sanitation.

The Indian government, on the other hand, sees the mission as an opportunity to advance its technical capabilities.

In the eyes of some commentators, Mangalyaan also sends a powerful geopolitical message to regional rivals like China whose space activities have yet to get beyond Earth and its Moon.