An Update on the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission


2014-09-25 By Gulshan Luthra

New Delhi. Indian scientists successfully maneuvered their Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft into the Martian orbit Sep 24, and created history by doing so in the maiden attempt.

The first to congratulate the scientists was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) headquarters in India’s aerospace city of Bangalore to witness the momentous occasion and share the joy with the scientists as soon as the MOM was injected into the orbit at 7.54 am (IST) after a 24-minute firing of the onboard 440 Newton Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM). “The success will go down as a landmark in history,” he observed.

Also to congratulate on ISRO’s efforts with Beyond the Blue were President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice Preisdent Hamid Ansari and thousands of citizens including children aspiring to be astronauts.


That the MOM, also called Mangalyaan (literally moon craft in Hindi) was successfully swung into the red planet’s orbit was also confirmed from US NASA’s space centers around the world, including at Goldstone, Madrid (Spain) and Canberra (Australia). NASA, whose MAVEN spacecraft is in the Martian orbit since Sep 21, flashed congratulations on its website to compliment ISRO and India.

ISRO’s huge Deep Space Network (DSN) radars, with huge antennas, located at Bayalu near Bangalore, were receiving signals from MOM, and later during the day, it was set to take pictures in accordance with the commands already loaded in onboard computers.

The DSN is similar in capability with NASA’s global facilities to monitor deep space traffic.

The 475-kg Mangalyaan is carrying five scientific instruments to study the Mars’ surface for water, methane and its mineral and chemical composition. The presence of methane, if confirmed, will be the first sign to indicate that life exists on the red planet in some form.

Indian scientists indicated that ISRO and NASA have always been cooperating and that a data exchange between the two institutions about their Martian spacecraft was likely. Right now, India and US are only two countries in the world to have Mars missions and their MAVEN and Mangalyaan comfortable neighbours to each other.

ISRO has already achieved success in launching an unmanned moon mission, Chandrayaan (or moon craft) in 2008. This was the first to locate water on the surface of moon with sophisticated sensors built by US defence company Raytheon but contributed by a US university.

NASA says that there should have been water on Mars. “Mars was once awash with water. With the arrival of Nasa’s Maven mission at the red planet, we may finally be close to working out where it all went.”

ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan said India had proved “our technological capabilities in outer space missions with an indigenous rocket and our own spacecraft.”

Set up in 1969, ISRO initiated space efforts with very modest assistance from the US but then built a satellite, Aryabhatta, which was launched by the Soviet Union on 19 April 1975.


ISRO has sent numerous satellites ever since, using its PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles) and GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) rockets for placing payloads in polar and geostationary orbits respectively. It has eight onboard thrusters which use liquid fuel as well as solar energy.

Compared to 365 days of earth to orbit the sun, Mars takes 687 days, and like the earth, it also has days and nights. The Mars day however is for 24 hours and 37 minutes, or a bit longer than that of the earth. MOM’s solar panels can generate electricity only when they get sun.

ISRO’s only weakness yet in proulsion technology has been in cryogenic rockets but authoritative sources told India Strategic that it is also now a few months away.

“May be one or two more launches, and then this would be confirmed.”

In fact, HAL, which makes propulsion systems for ISRO, announced that it is partnering with ISRO to make cryogenic systems. HAL Chairman Dr RK Tyagi said: An Integrated Cryogenic Engine manufacturing Facility) ICMF) will be set up at HAL’s Aerospace Division here, and it will manufacture cryogenic/ semi cryogenic engines for ISRO.”

Although France, Russia (earlier Soviet Union) and US have cooperated with India in varying degrees on the space frontier, none has shared the cryogenic technology. US aerospace company Boeing at one time offered only “cryogenic tanks” but it was perhaps not accepted by India as being too little.

Notably, Russia did give half a dozen engines of older technology and without the data on how to use them. “The experience in handling them was useful nonetheless, and two private companies, Godrej and MTAR Technologies, have contributed a lot in this direction.

Built at a small cost of about US$ 70 million (Rs 450 crores), MOM was launched on 5 November 2013 through a PSLV from India’s only spaceport at Sriharikota in the Bay of Bengal, some 80 km from Chennai, the capital of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. MOM travelled some 650 million km over nine months to reach the designated orbit.

It is orbiting around the Mars just 423 km at the closest point and some 80,000 km at the farthest point. Scientists use gravity of the planets and the sun to sling manmade spacecraft into desired orbits and that was done in this case also.

MOM has been built indigenously but several off the shelf commercially available components were acquired from the global markets as per the standard global practice. There are plenty of critical items like inertial guidance systems that are not made in India, due either to lack of technology or commercial viability. It makes sense to buy them from wherever.

India is the fourth country at present after US, Russia and France (+Europe) with capability to launch missions of this scale.

India’s Space and Nuclear programmes are controlled directly by the Prime Minister’s office. In fact nearly all the Prime Ministers, notably Mrs Indira Gandhi, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, Mr A B Vajpayee, Dr Manmohan Singh and now Mr Modi have shown keen interest in steering them to success and new frontiers.

Republished with permission of our partner India Strategic.

For our look at the emergence of multi-polar space see the following piece published in Space News, March 1, 2010.