After United States, Russia and Europe India put a spacecraft on the space highway from Earth to Mars today. Lacking a more powerful rocket to directly release the satellite on the Earth to Mars trajectory Indian scientists adopted a slower and low cost alternative. They launched the spacecraft on the farthest possible orbit around Earth and then raised the orbit using its onboard engine over a month long process to over 2 lakh kilometers. India’s Mars mission has a price tag of 4.5 billion rupees ($73 million), just over a tenth of the cost of NASA’s latest mission.
Mars Orbiter Mission – India – Artists’ Concept. From Wikimedia Commons.
Early today morning Indian scientists did what is termed as a “mother of all sling shots” and sent the spacecraft cruising on a sun-centric orbit to the Mars. “If the spacecraft is half a degree out in its direction, or if the velocity is a few kilometers too fast or slow, the slingshot will not work,” says Mayank Vahia, a professor in the astronomy and astrophysics department of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai (Times of India). The spacecraft is scheduled to reach March on 24th September 2014 covering a distance of 780 million kilometers over a ten month long travel. Mangalyaan, Sanskrit name given to the spacecraft meaning Mars-craft, is expected to orbit around Mars for six months and collect data. The data will help study the surface and search for presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere regarded as an indication of pesence of life on the planet. Recent explorations by US for methane on Mars turned negative and so it is pointed out by some experts that the goal of Indian mission is already redundant. Even if that maybe so the mission will help Indian scientists gain experience in handling a complex space mission which would help their future projects. And they might yet spring a surprise, as they did 5 years ago, when a US instrument on board their Chandrayaan (Moon-craft) collected data that later helped US scientists find water molecules in the polar regions of the moon and magmatic water locked under the surface of the moon, for the first time.
About 250 scientists of Indian Space Research Organisation are involved in this mission which is essentially sending a remote controlled toy into distanct space but is not as simple and easy to monitor and control because it goes hundreds of millions of kilometers away. No nation succeeded in its first attempt and nearly half of the attempts to reach Mars made so far have failed.
In ancient India Mars was known by several Sanskrit names and Mangala is the most well known. Indians had named the third day of the week as Mangalvar after the red planet and not coincidentally India’s Mars mission was launched on a Mangalvar (Tuesday). Some other lesser known Sanskrit names for Mangala are Dhara Nisuta (dried up surface) and Lohitanga (Red powdered, Iron dust). It is amazing how the ancient Indians found these facts about planet Mars when there were no telescope or spacecraft. Probably by yogic vision like Sri Aurobindo who saw on 14th March, 1914, hundred years ago, that Mars was once what Earth is now, a theatre of life and humans. A lead scientist of a recent US Mars mission confirmed earlier this year, “A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment. From what we know now, the answer is yes.”‘
1. Ancient Mars may have supported life: Scientists – Times of India dt 13/3/2013
2. Mangalyan – India’s Mars Mission – Bharat Gyan
3. Notes on images seen in March 1914 – Pg 1323, Record of Yoga by Sri Aurobindo
4. Space.com – Why is Mars Red?
5. Chandrayaan helps NASA detect water on moon – The Hindu – 28/8/2013