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India's space probe joins legacy of daring missions to Mars

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Sep 21, 2014, 22:51 UTC

Sen—Many spacecraft have made the journey to Mars, but only a fraction of them have survived. India is the latest nation to make an attempt, with the country planning to place the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in orbit on Wednesday (24 September).

The Indian Space Research Organization has been sending out regular updates on social media assuring followers that all is well with the atmospheric probe, which is also known as Mangalyaan. The commands have been uploaded and the last major task before orbital insertion, to test the engine, will take place shortly.

Then it is a matter of waiting as the spacecraft prepares to turn on its engines and go into a planned eclipse that will cut off communications. It will only be after the spacecraft re-emerges from this blackout that controllers will learn how well it did.

Many a time, Mars spacecraft have entered such a blackout and never transmitted again. Among the more high-profile ones: NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter missed its target in 1999 due to an error where one spacecraft team used metric and the other imperial measures for a spacecraft operation. That same year, NASA's Mars Polar Lander never made it to the surface, probably because the engine shut off prematurely.

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Artist's conception of India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Image credit: Nesnad/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

But there have been many attempts from other nations. The Soviet Union, for example, sent a series of Mars probes to the planet in the 1960s that never made it, finally having more success in the 1970s with missions such as Mars 3 (which successfully landed on the surface and briefly transmitted data).

Japan attempted to send its Nozomi probe to Mars in 1998, but problems with solar flares and depleted fuel caused the country to choose a flyby rather than risk a crash contaminating Mars. The European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft has been happily transmitting for years, but the accompanying Beagle 2 lander never made it safely to the surface.

Why is Mars so hard? It is far away, meaning spacecraft components can break down en route. Its atmosphere is thinner, making simulations of landing conditions difficult. And it is also a harsh place, cold and capable of throwing up global dust storms. That cold has killed more than one successful mission in its extended phase, most notably the NASA Spirit rover that died in a sand dune because it could not generate enough power to get through the winter.

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Curiosity pictures a series of sedimentary deposits in the Glenelg area of Gale Crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Alongside these failures, however, is the hope that India can reach success. Today there is a fleet of Mars spacecraft and rovers daily transmitting information back to Earth. NASA's Curiosity rover found an ancient shore or lakebed in 2013. Similarly, the agency's Opportunity rover has found extensive evidence of minerals soaked in water—and is still trucking along after more than 10 years of operation at Mars.

ESA's Mars Express is still working well as it approaches its 12th year of work, and NASA has long-lived spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet as well: Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) is scheduled to arrive for a one-year orbital mission early Monday (22 September).

Despite the challenges of Mars, many more spacecraft are expected to come shortly. ESA's ExoMars orbiter and lander missions will depart in 2016 and 2018, respectively. And NASA is planning a successor to Curiosity, provisionally called Mars 2020, which will search for both signs of habitability and life itself.