India Set To Be The First Asian Country To Reach Mars
The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also named Mangalyaan (Hindi for "Mars Vehicle"), is a responsibility of the Indian Space Research Organizaiton (ISRO) and it is being developed since 2010. With an estimated cost of ?454 crore (US$69 million).
It consists of a satellite which, as the project's name suggests, will orbit Mars for a period between six and ten months. The launch was set to happen on October 28th 2013, but due to some operational issues related to the weather it was postponed to 8 days later. The probe was then launched on November 5th 2013, from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre First Launch Pad.
Weighing around 1,350 kg (almost 3,000 lbs), Mangalyaan spaceship is now orbiting the Earth and is set to begin its journey to Mars on December 1st 2013. Why is it yet orbiting our planet, I hear you asking? Actually, this is a very interesting fact to understand.
The fact is that Mangalyaan will not travel directly to Mars. Instead, it will use a method called "Hohmann transfer orbit", which is useful to save fuel. Basically, this is a method used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes, in the same plane. By using this method, MOM is the cheapeast Mars mission ever.
As you can see in the scheme above, the first step is for Mangalyaan to perform several orbits around the Earth, using on-board propulsion to gradually modify those orbits until it is set to departure. Then, the probe starts its 300 day and 400 million km (roughly 250 million miles) long journey to Mars, reaching the planet by September 2014. When it approaches Mars, the ship will activate rockets in order to decrease its speed and get "caught" into Mars' orbit.
Timing played a truly important role in this mission - this method could only be applied when Mars was closer to Earth, which happens every 24 months. If scientists failed this year's "window of opportunity", which was 20 days counting from October 28th 2013, the next two would only happen in 2016 and 2018.
This mission objective's are mainly related to technical aspects, such as equipment testing and orbital maneuvering practice, with the scientific goals being secondary. On board there is also material from other Space Agencies, such as NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). If MOM is successful, ISRO will become the fourth Space Agency to reach Mars, after the Soviet space program, NASA and ESA.