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India's Mars probe nails its orbit

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Sep 24, 2014, 11:11 UTC, Updated Sep 25, 2014, 0:11 UTC

Sen—Defying the odds, India’s first Mars probe wrapped up a 10-month journey with a do-or-die engine burn to put itself into orbit, becoming only the fourth country to successfully reach Mars and the first nation to do so on its debut mission.

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft, also known as Mangalyaan (Hindi for “Mars craft”), fired its eight braking thrusters at 9:47 p.m. EDT (0147 GMT Wednesday), shedding speed so that it could be captured by Mars’ gravity following its 420 million mile (675 million km) trip.

Flight controllers at Bangalore nervously awaited confirmation of a successful maneuver, which came at 10:30 p.m. (0230 GMT) when the spacecraft re-emerged from behind the planet and relayed signals back to Earth.

“What is red, is a planet and is the focus of my orbit?” the Indian Space Research Organisation posted on its Mars Orbiter Twitter feed.

MOM is the second orbiter to arrive this week, boosting the number of Mars probes to seven. NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft arrived Sunday to begin a year-long investigation into how the planet most like Earth in the Solar System lost its water. 

MOM is mostly a technology demonstrator, but the $74 million spacecraft is outfitted with five science instruments, including a sensor to look for methane in the planet’s atmosphere. The gas, which on Earth is strongly tied to life, has made mysterious appearances and unexpectedly quick disappearances on Mars. 

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The sequence of events as MOM went into orbit about Mars. Image credit: ISRO

MOM also has an infrared imaging spectrometer to map minerals and a color camera to photograph the planet’s surface, the Martian moons and other phenomena.

Only the former Soviet Union, the United States and Europe have successfully sent probes to Mars and none had complete success on their first attempts. Japan lost a Mars mission in 1998 when its spacecraft ran out of fuel. In 2003, the United Kingdom’s Beagle lander, which hitched a ride to Mars with Europe’s successful Mars Express orbiter, was lost during its descent to the surface.

A botched Russian launch in 2011 claimed China’s first Mars probe, Yinghuo-1, along with the entire Phobos-Grunt mission.

In addition to MOM and MAVEN, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, along with Europe’s Mars Express are currently in orbit around Mars. NASA also has two working rovers on the planet’s surface, the long-lived Opportunity and the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity.

"We congratulate ISRO for its Mars arrival!," NASA posted on Twitter.

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The MOM team at mission control in Bangalore waiting patiently for news that Mangalyaan had entered orbit. Image credit: ISRO