| Aditya Kalra |
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – 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 September 24, India would become the first country to succeed on its first try. European, US 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 Organisation (ISRO), told Reuters. “All the operations done so far are successful and all the parameters measured are normal.”
Indian scientists and engineers from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) monitor India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) which controls the orbiter in Bangalore on September 15 – AFP
ISRO has already uploaded commands to help the spacecraft automatically enter orbit on the morning of September 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 kilometres 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.