In a feat showcasing both technology and a taste for deep space exploration, India launched its first-ever probe to Mars earlier today. Named Mangalyaan (Hindi for “Mars Craft”), it shot into space atop a four-stage, 350-ton rocket at the Satish Dhawan Space Center at 2:38 p.m. local time.
Getting to Mars has always been a tricky business. Of 51 missions to the Red Planet only 21 have been successful. Some probes have missed the planet entirely; others have crash landed. Should India succeed, in placing it Mars Craft into orbit, it would be the 4th country to do so after the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency.
Mission control at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will command the probe to fire its onboard thrusters in the coming weeks will raise its orbit around Earth before finally “kicking it out of the nest” on its flight to Mars on December 1. The probe will arrive at its destination on September 24, 2014.
Once in orbit, the Mars Craft will survey the planet and its atmosphere with a variety of instruments: a medium-resolution camera for surface photos, an infrared (heat-sensing) spectrometer to study the chemical composition of the surface, an Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer to study the makeup of the planet high, thin atmosphere and a methane detector.
Bacteria, cows and other living things release methane; it’s considered one of the key indicators for potential microbial life on other planets. While Curiosity has not detected any methane, other orbiting probes have, so the presence and origin of methane on Mars remains an open question.
“One of the important objectives of the scientific part of this mission is to see the presence of methane or otherwise,” said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, on India’s NDTV network earlier today.
NASA will be helping India track the Mars Craft with navigation and communication support as well as tracking with the agency’s Deep Space Network.
Mars is becoming a hot destination. On Nov. 18 NASA will launch the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft, expected to arrive at the planet just two days before India’s Mars Craft. MAVEN’s designed to study the Martian atmosphere with the hope of finding out how it evolved from being relatively wet and dense into the thin gruel we see today.
The more we learn about Mars, the better we’ll understand our own place in space. Heck, I’m just excited about any Mars mission. Our good wishes for a safe voyage to the Indian people and their emissary Mangalyaan!