India successfully launches its first mission to Mars today

The four-stage Polar Launch Satellite Vehicle carrying India’s Mars Craft takes off earlier today 60 miles north of Chennai in southeastern India. Credit: ISRO

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.

Images of Mars taken earlier this fall by Damian Peach. The north polar cap is visible at bottom; the large African-shaped feature is an ancient shield volcano called Syrtis Major. Mars has always fired the human imagination with its similarities to Earth.

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.

The payload shroud, which encapsulates the Mars Craft, is open to show the probe. Credit: ISRO

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.

The probe’s current elliptical orbit around Earth before it’s sent off to Mars on Dec. 1. Credit: ISRO

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.

The Mars Craft unwrapped and ready to rock in roll come next September. Credit: ISRO

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!

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

15 thoughts on “India successfully launches its first mission to Mars today

  1. Very excited to see a successful lunch buy the Indian people , don’t know about the 400 million Indians living in poverty lol lol , but I’m very excited for the first of next month !! . I live in Queensland Australia and its the 6th of November , will I be able to see the craft orbiting the earth at night time at any time over the next month ??? I just very excited with any exploration to the red planet …. Come on India find us some methane baby !!!!

  2. If you could keep me posted astro bob that would be supernova lol lol .. Also do you know when we would be able to see mars next from Queensland Australia .. Is it visible from here all the time .. Only now and then ? Because there always one bright distinctive star in my night sky that I always wonder about ?? Cheers astrobob

    • Hey Scott,
      I like your spirit. Yes, Mars is easily visible from Australia right now though not presently as high as it is from northern latitudes. You’ll find the planet about 25-30 degrees high in the northeastern sky during early morning twilight. A similar bright object – the star Regulus – shines to its upper left.

  3. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM-Mangalyaan) was inserted on its “parking” Earth orbit at a 19.2 degrees inclination and highly elliptical orbit (247 x 23556 km initially) so that leaves us in North America out of the hunt to see the interplanetary voyager. Hopefully no spare parts from the ill-fated Phobos-Grunt mission were used in its assembly.

    • Thanks BC for the orbital inclination update. Would it not be theoretically possible to see MOM from North America at or around apogee (with a telescope) given its great distance from Earth?

      • yes definitely as the apogee is pretty close to geo-synchronous altitude so if you’d know when and where to look and perhaps get a lucky glint or flare from the solar panels.
        Thanks Bob, I hadn’t thought of that; the snow that fell last night must have slowed firing of my my neurons, unless it’s just a french-canadian thing ;)

        • BC,
          So it’s snowing by you? We were supposed to get a little today-tonight but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. I’m excited about clear skies starting tomorrow night – I’ll be taking my class out for a little Comet ISON viewing Thursday morning.

          • yes H2O falling in crystalline form. it didn’t stick here at the valley bottom but totally different story just a few hundred feet up. clouds are temporarily thinning right now and I can see Capella with more clouds and moisture on the way with temperature steady at 3º C (37ºF). I’m sure there would be a market for a “cloud deflector”. Wishing you and the “class” clear skies :)

  4. Thanks astro , cheers BC … It’s almost 1900hr in North Queensland and dark has just falling and the heavens have started to lite up . So you guys are telling me I can see MOM tonight ???? If it not to much trouble mate do you know What time will be the best to start the MOM hunt ?? And were should I look ?? .. I don’t have to work tomorrow so it looking like a great night .. Clear sky’s , warm weather and cold beers

    • Hi Scott,
      I don’t see its orbital elements yet in places like Heavens Above (satellite site) so can’t give you predictions on when and where to look. I also don’t know how bright it might appear – it might require binoculars. Sorry. When I do know I’ll publish that information in my blog. Can anyone else out there help?

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