India’s low cost Mangalyaan spacecraft will attempt to enter the orbit around Mars next week in the first ever such endeavour of India’s space industry.
The outcome of the $74m Mars Orbiter Mission, the flagship project of India’s space programme, may influence the future of the country’s fledgling space sector.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has previously announced his plan to build a new space port that would enable India to launch heavier satellites to increase the country’s stake in the global space launch business.
However, if India succeeds with inserting Mangalyaan into the Martian orbit, it will become the first country to manage such a feat on the first attempt. All previous Martian orbit conquerors, the USA, Russia and Europe, experienced failures with their early tries.
Launched last November, Mangalyaan cost only about a tenth of the price of Nasa’s Mars-bound spacecraft Maven, which will attempt to enter orbit around the Red Planet three days before Mangalyaan.
The spacecraft’s task is to study the planet's surface and mineral composition, and scan its atmosphere for methane, a tell-tale sign of life.
"Confidence is high," V Koteswara Rao, scientific secretary at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), told Reuters. "All the operations done so far are successful and all the parameters measured are normal."
ISRO has already uploaded commands to help the spacecraft automatically enter orbit on the morning of 24 September.
Two days before that, scientists will run a four-second test of the spacecraft's main engine that has been idle for about 300 days, and make a small course correction, Rao said.
However, experts say it will be challenging to get the trajectory right and cut the craft's speed from its current rate of 22km per second to allow it to enter orbit. Also tricky would be intercepting the spacecraft’s faint signals.
"It's like hitting a one-rupee coin about a hundred kilometres away, and that is tough," said Mayank N Vahia, a scientist in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
ISRO has prepared a contingency plan. If the main engine fails to restart, eight small fuel-powered thrusters will be used to put the spacecraft into orbit around Mars.
India launched its space programme five decades ago and developed its own rocket technology after Western powers imposed sanctions for a nuclear weapons test in 1974. One of the highlights of the country’s space programme came in 2009 when its Chandrayaan satellite found evidence of water on the Moon.
Although facing strong competition from neighbour China, India aspires to become a low-cost supplier of space technology and grab a bigger slice of the more than $300bn global industry.
India has so far launched 40 foreign satellites, many of them for advanced nations. However, China is still ahead as it has the technology to put heavier satellites into orbit.
Despite its recent success, India has been widely criticised for its investment in space, as some believe it should first focus on tackling poverty and poor living conditions of millions of its inhabitants.