A busy week in the Martian orbit has commenced with two orbiters scheduled to arrive to the Red Planet only two days apart.
While the successful orbital insertion of Nasa’s atmosphere-surveyor MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) has been no surprise given the US space agency’s impressive track record in Martian exploration, the world is eagerly awaiting the outcome of India’s Mangalyaan venture.
The $74m (£45m) Mangalyaan mission, built at a tenth of the cost of Maven, represents India’s first ever attempt to bring a spacecraft to orbit around Mars. If successful, it will prove the growing capabilities of India’s space programme and reinforce the country’s ambitions to grab a greater slice of the global satellite launch market.
Only a couple of hours after teams at Nasa’s Goddard Spaceflight Center burst into delighted applause after radio signals from Maven confirmed the spacecraft successfully concluded a braking manoeuvre and established its position in the Martian orbit, Indian scientists said their spacecraft, too, is on the right track.
Mangalyaan’s main engine performed a successful test and carried out a course correction needed to enter the Martian orbit.
"Main liquid engine test firing successful ... we had a perfect burn for four seconds as programmed," the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said on its social media sites.
The engine, powered down since the Mangalyaan’s launch last November, will together with eight small thrusters reduce the craft's speed from its current 22km/s to allow the spacecraft slip into orbit around Mars during the Wednesday’s entry attempt.
If Mangalyaan succeeds, India will become the first country to conquer Martian orbit on the first attempt. Previous Martian explorers, the USA, Europe and Russia, all failed with their maiden ventures.
India is eagerly anticipating the Wednesday attempt with some religious groups even organising praying sessions to ensure the mission success.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi who places great emphasis on the growth India’s space industry will follow Mangalyaan’s arrival to Mars from ISRO’s control centre in Bangelore. Narendra has outlined his plans to turn India into a major low cost provider of satellite launches, going head to head with arch-rival China.
Both, MAVEN and Mangalyaan will survey Mars’s atmosphere from the orbit, with Mangalyaan focusing on traces of methane, the tell-tale sign of life, and MAVEN scrutinising the upper layers to understand how it dissolves in solar wind.
“As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet,” said Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden. “It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.”
The two probes are joining an exclusive club of Mars exploring spacecraft which includes Nasa’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters, rovers Curiosity and Opportunity and Esa’s Mars Express orbiter.