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India’s Mars mission: The countdown begins for ISRO’s voyage to the Red Planet

The 299-day voyage to Mars,set to launch on October 28,is also a leap of faith for ISRO.

Written by Johnson T A |
October 6, 2013 3:22:32 am

It’s baby steps to deep space. But the 400-million kilometres,299-day,rs 450-cr voyage to Mars,set to launch on October 28,is also a leap of faith for ISRO,explains JOHNSON T A

Though science is at the core of their work,scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation are a religious group. In the past,ISRO chairmen have been known to transport toy models of spacecraft and launch vehicles to temples around south India for blessings of gods. As work at over five different ISRO centres began converging this week towards the planned October 28 launch of the space agency’s Mission to Mars,or the Mangalyaan Mission,religious rituals are back to the fore.

Ahead of the rollout of the spacecraft—the 1,343-kg main bus carrying the 15-kg Mars Orbiter—prayers were conducted for success and blessings were sought for the spacecraft.

To know answer about life on Mars,ISRO orbiter to sniff for methane

Over the next three weeks,as final checks are conducted,852 kg of solid and liquid fuel is loaded for rocket engines,the spacecraft is integrated with the launch vehicle and the final countdown is started,a core group of 50 scientists will be at work 24/7.


The scientists can be forgiven for invoking god this time. Once at the forefront of space-faring nations,India has fallen behind in recent years,with no commercial launches of note,failed missions—including experiments with the heavy lift Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)—and a scam embroiled ISRO.

Photo: IE Photo

The Rs 450-crore Mars Orbiter Mission is being seen at the space agency as a chance at redemption. Despite its relative lack of novelty in global terms,the mission is a challenge for ISRO since it will be the agency’s first attempt outside the sphere of influence of Earth. A Russian-Chinese joint attempt to send an orbiter to Mars failed in November 2011 after the spacecraft failed to leave Earth’s orbit and crashed back.

Mars spacecraft shipped out of Bangalore for October 28 mission

The numbers alone tell the challenges: the interplanetary journey has been attempted 51 times since the Russians aimed for Mars in 1960,and only 21 of these—restricted to three space agencies (from the US,Russia and Europe)—have been successful.

It will take 299 days for the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft to traverse the 400 million kilometres to reach an orbit around Mars for example. Every piece of communication that the spacecraft sends will have a 40-minute lag before it is received.

The launch is scheduled for the October-November window,when Mars is closest to Earth (a window that opens every 780 days).


The priority of the mission,according to the Department of Space and ISRO,is to understand how to carry out deep-space missions in order to sit at the high table of nations with these capabilities. “It will bring strategic advantage to India in the international decision-making process on matters related to Mars,” believes the Department of Space.

ISRO’s Mars mission a publicity stunt: Madhavan Nair

As ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan stated a few months ago,following government nod to the mission,their next goal would be investigating the atmosphere of Mars. Dr M Annadurai,who was the project director for Chandrayaan-I and is responsible for the Mars Mission,says: “It is a logical extension of the Moon Mission.”


So,at the end of October,ISRO will send a small spacecraft with a 15-kg payload,comprising five instruments,to orbit around Mars—at distances ranging between 350 km and 80,000 km—and to carry out experiments that have largely been done by several other missions. Originally intended in 2006 to be an ambitious 500-kg payload with multiple instruments,it was scaled down primarily on account of the repeated failure of test missions of the indigenous GSLV programme since 2010.

The stalling of the GSLV programme,meant to carry heavy spacecrafts deep into space and expected to be the bedrock of the Indian space programme,has meant that the Mars Mission is going to be carried out by the PSLV XL,a tried and tested vehicle.

The PSLV XL was proven in the Chandrayaan-I,GSAT 12 and RISAT missions of ISRO. The main spacecraft on which the Mangalyaan mission will take place is a variation of the existing 1,350-kg Chandrayaan mission bus.

“Originally the mission was planned on the GSLV. In that case we could have had 12 instruments,and we could have gone to a respectable orbit around Mars. But now,since the GSLV is not ready,an alternative is being sent to Mars using the PSLV. This is a compromise solution,” says former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair,who was discredited in 2011 by the Antrix-Devas scam.

According to Nair,the Mars Mission is only a showpiece that is not going to push the Indian space programme forward in any way since it is largely an improvement on the Moon Mission and INSAT programmes in terms of mission strategies.

ISRO’s overall Mars Mission in-charge Dr Annadurai is however of the view that it poses new tests and challenges for the space agency. “The approach to Mars must be with the required velocity at the proper location and direction. This calls for doing orbit transfer at the precise time,precise orientation and imparting precise velocity increments,” he says.

“Mars,its atmosphere,its gravity field,these are all things one has to take into account in mission calculations,” notes ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan.


One of the key challenges the mission faces,according to ISRO officials,is restarting the spacecraft engine after 300 days,when the Orbiter enters the Martian orbit.

After its launch,the Orbiter will go into Earth orbit and six engine firings will raise the orbit to a maximum of 2,15,000 km and a minimum of 600 km in about a month. The Orbiter is scheduled to head for Mars with a final firing of engines around November 30,2013,and will enter the Mars orbit on September 21,2014.

According to Nair,the Mangalyaan’s orbit distance of a minimum of 350 km and a maximum of 80,000 km around Mars is also not conducive to the best of experimentation. “With the orbit varying over such large distances,no meaningful experimentation can be done. Not even a good picture will come out of it,” he says.

However,Annadurai counters him,saying that the Mangalyaan’s orbit will enable both near and far images of Mars.


There are already five other active Mars missions in progress in outer space—NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey Orbiter,the European Space Agency’s nearly 10-year-old Mars Express Orbiter,NASA’s nine-year-old Mars Exploration Rover called Opportunity,the seven-year-old Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter and the one-year-old Mars Science Laboratory rover called Curiosity.

Some of the experiments that the Mangalyaan Mission proposes to conduct,like searching for methane on Mars as an indicator of the possibility of life,have already been conducted by some of the recent missions.

NASA’s Curiosity rover,which reached Mars in August 2012,is roaming the surface of Mars conducting experiments and NASA scientists using data from Curiosity reported on September 19 that there is no methane—a possible indication that there may be no life on Mars.

“It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes,but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism. As we know,there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don’t generate methane,” NASA’s lead scientist for Mars exploration Michael Meyer was quoted as saying in an official NASA release following the Curiosity findings.

ISRO scientists are of the view that the NASA findings will not have a bearing on the Mangalyaan Mission. “We will be looking at Mars differently from what Curioisity has done. There can be new findings or confirmations of findings,” says ISRO Satellite Centre Director S K Shivakumar.

NASA is also scheduled to launch its own new orbiter mission to Mars called Maven on November 18 to study the geography of Mars. NASA’s Deep Space Network will incidentally be supporting the Mangalyaan mission as part of US-India space cooperation that began with the Chandrayaan mission.

During periods when the Mars spacecraft cannot be tracked by the Indian Deep Space Network located outside Bangalore,it will be tracked by NASA.


* Orbit manoeuvres to ensure final capture into Martian orbit

* Development of force modls and algorithms for orbit and attitude computations and analyses

* Maintain the probe in all phases of the mission,meeting power,communications,thermal and payload operation requirements

* Look for methane on Mars,for detection of life on the planet


* During the launch,the Mangalyaan Mission will be tracked by two specially equippeed Shipping Corporation of India ships–Yamuna and Nalanda,positioned in the South Pacific Ocean.

* During its journey from Earth to Mars,the MarsOrbiter will be tracked using he Indian Deep Space Network at Baylalu on the outskirts of Bangalore and sea-borne S-band terminals.

*At the time of the Mars capture in September 2014,tracking and communication with the satelite will be done using the 70-metre antenna of NASA’s deep space network at Canberra in Australia.


S K Shivakumar: The Director of the ISRO Satellite Centre,which built the Mars Orbiter and spacecraft. An engineer from the Indian Institute of Science,he was earlier the head of ISRO’s telemetry,tracking and command network,ISTRAC. He helped set up the Indian Deep Space Network that was used for tracking the Chandrayaan-I moon mission of 2008. He subsequently took over as director of the satellite centre,which is responsible for making all ISRO satellites. While he has babysitted dozens of ISRO satellites,Shivakumar calls India’s maiden mission to the moon his most challenging. “Now we are going even further—beyond the one million mile sphere of influence of Earth,” he says.

Dr Mylswamy Annnadurai: The Programme Director of IRS & SSS (Indian Remote Sensing & Small,Science and Student Satellites) at ISRO,he was the project director of the Moon Mission and is overseeing the one to Mars as well. Since joining ISRO in 1992,he has managed missions for the INSAT series communication satellites. Prior to the Moon Mission,he had been a recipient of the Hariom Pretit Vikram Sarabhai Research Award for outstanding contribution to sytems analysis and space system management. He works 18-hour days these days. “I see this as a lifetime opportunity,” he says.

P Kunhikrishnan: He is the Mission Director for the launcher. From the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram,Kunhikrishnan has seven successful PSLV launches under his belt since 2009. He has been involved with development of three versions of the launch vehicle—generic,core alone and XL—to place spacecraft in different destinations. For the Mars mission,the XL version of the PSLV is being utilised.

S Arunan: The Project Director for the Mars Orbiter. For the senior scientist with the ISRO Satellite Centre,the Mars Mission is a maiden venture as Project Director. His team created the Mars Orbiter for ISRO in 12 months and is now bracing for sleepless nights as the mission approaches countdown.

Dr V Kesavaraju: The Mission Director for the post-launch operations. A team led by Dr Kesavaraju of the ISRO Satellite Centre will monitor the Mars Mission following its launch,including tracking it in outer space. Dr Kesavaraju has been involved with building multiple satellites

for ISRO over the years. He was mission director for ISRO’s Cartosat.

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