India at Mars

Short version: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft successfully fired it’s Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) today to correct its trajectory and also served as a test for the LAM which had been sleeping for about 298 days now whilst the spacecraft sped in the general direction of where Mars would be. As of 9:30 AM today, MOM is in Mars’ sphere of gravitational influence, it test fired and trajectory corrected at 2:30 PM today. Long version below.

It was 2:30 PM today when ISRO tweeted that the MOM may currently be firing its LAM to perform a test to check if it’s still working and also execute a very small trajectory correction so that the spacecraft will be set up to park into Mars orbit come the morning of September 24. About 15 minutes after that, ISRO announced to the world that they had fired the engines successfully for nearly 4 seconds.

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Image: ISRO flashed this image on Twitter with the caption, “Test Firing of Liquid Engine: Guided by wisdom, Executed by youth”. link to the orignial pic

I was really sceptical about ISRO’s prospects of doing a Mars mission. They worked really hard and pulled through extra shifts to ensure that a spacecraft would be ready in time for the Mars launch window in 2013. Little news items were strewn around showing progress that ISRO made that showed that ISRO was working towards the goal of launching in 2013 but nothing quite indicated that they were ready to launch. As the launch window approached, they quickly got the spacecraft off Earth on a smaller launch vehicle than one would anticipate being used for a Mars mission anywhere else in the world.

The modified PSLV, a workhorse adaptable launch vehicle performed excellently delivering the spacecraft to its intended orbit. The spacecraft then performed orbit raising manoeuvres and slowly headed out towards the heliocentric orbit. As the spacecraft pushed off towards Mars, my skepticism slowly waned away.

For a technology demonstrator mission, the most critical part of the mission is to show that the fundamental building blocks work and can function. With today’s LAM firing, I think that ISRO proved a very crucial component of the mission design. Skepticism kept me away from posting anything here for a very long time. I have to say that I am now very hopeful that we can do this. I seek nothing more than a gentle nudge that puts the spacecraft in an elliptical orbit around Mars.

Critics of this mission have been plenty and have criticised each component of this mission design. ISRO has answered its critics thus far by action, something I think that many Indians would do well to ape.

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