Perhaps it was the last-minute prayers offered at Tirupati. Or, the ‘lucky peanuts’ from NASA for good luck. Or, more likely, the work of the teams at ISRO. At precisely 2-38 p.m., India’s maiden mission to Mars blasted off from the first launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, in a lift-off that was described as “textbook perfection”.

During the first phase of its 400-million-km, 300-day journey, the Mars Orbiter Mission gave few signs of worry as the range operation director at the control room announced at regular intervals: “Everything normal”. The flight parameters — including time, relative velocity, range and altitude — were continuously displayed on screen as scientists kept a close watch on the fourth and final stage of the first phase.

First stage

Twenty minutes after the lift-off, Mangalyaan’s trajectory disappeared from the screen before one of the two ship-borne terminals in the Pacific Ocean caught its signal. At this point, the Mission had been injected into the Earth’s orbit with a perigee (nearest point) of 246.9 km and an apogee (farthest point) of 23,560 km against the predicted figures of 250 km and 23,500 km.

“The first stage went off very well with great accuracy. The primary solar panel deployment and the second solar panel deployment were done,” said ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan.

Twenty-one missions to Mars, of a total of 51, have been failures. Undaunted, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, riding on the trusted workhorse PSLV-25, which was on its 25th successful mission, was described as doing “healthy with a precise orbit definition for the first earth-bound manoeuvre in December.”

As the mission completed the first phase successfully, the control room broke out into applause. A. S. Kiran Kumar, Director of Space Applications Centre, said, “Our baby is up in space and it is our job to look after it.”

Among the people present in the control room were Minister of State in the PMO V. Narayanaswamy, former ISRO Chairman Kasturirangan, Prof Yash Pal, who started ISRO’s space programme, and US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell. Soon after the Orbiter’s injection into the Earth orbit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called in to wish the ISRO scientist community.

In a series of course corrections that will be made, it is the sixth manoeuvre due in the early hours on December 1 that will be the most crucial one. That manoeuvre will put the mission out of Earth’s sphere of influence and ISRO plans to attempt the trans-Martian injection after which the satellite will be on a helio-centric path halfway around the Sun before it makes the transition to Mars’ orbit in September 2014. “During its flight to the Mars orbit, the scientific instruments on board will start their work and we will begin to receive data,” said V. Adimurthy, Dean of Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology.

Experiments

The Mars Orbiter Mission is carrying five payloads, including one to search for biological or geological sources of methane. The experiments were chosen from an initial pool of 33 ideas submitted by the scientific community.

“Of the 33 ideas, nine instruments were designed but only five were available as they were the flight-worthy instruments,” said Radhakrishnan.

(This article was published on November 5, 2013)
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