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Mangalyaan enters Mars orbit in maiden attempt

India has secured for itself a unique place in the annals of space exploration by becoming the first country to enter the Mars orbit in its maiden attempt. With the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) on Wednesday successfully inserting Mangalyaan, its Rs 450-crore spacecraft, into Mars’ orbit, the number of orbiters at work around that planet reached seven.

A day earlier, India had become the first Asian country to enter Mars’ sphere of influence (gravity); a similar mission by China had failed in 2011.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who witnessed Wednesday’s historic event from Isro’s Bangalore headquarters, was one of the first to wish Chairman K Radhakrishnan and his team of scientists for the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Excitement over this breakthrough in space technology was palpable around the country — among ordinary citizens, as well as scientists. Isro’s official page on social networking website Facebook had received as many 4,689 new followers, including the prime minister, within 40 minutes of the mission’s success.    

Modi lauded the Isro scientists for achieving the rare feat in less than three years from conception of the project. Speaking from the mission centre, he said: “Mangal ko MOM mil gaya. MOM kabhi niraash nahi karti (Mars has got MOM – referring to the mission as mother – and MOM never disappoints).”

“Atalji’s vision had inspired us to go for the moon. The successful Chandrayan mission then led to the Mars Orbiter Mission. Let today’s success drive us with even greater vigour and conviction. Let’s set even more challenging goals for ourselves,” he said.

Of the 51 Mars missions by countries across the world so far, only 21 have succeeded – and none in the first attempt. “We have reached the unknown by daring to go beyond boundaries of human enterprise and imagination, despite the odds stacked against us,” the prime minister said.

With Wednesday’s success, Isro has joined a select club including the US, the European Space Agency and Russia, which had either reached the Red Planet or its orbit earlier.

“No one represents the zeal to explore the unknown more than our space scientists do here at Isro. Through your brilliance and hard work, you have made achieving the impossible a habit,” Modi said, adding that the India of today’s times must play a leading role and be “Jagad-guru Bharat”.

The events that began at 4.17 am on Wednesday led to placing of the MOM into the Martian orbit at 8.02 am. The spacecraft had until then travelled nearly 650 million km over 300 days to reach that planet.

Two days earlier, Isro had successfully conducted a trajectory correction manoeuvre and a test-firing of the Main Liquid Engine, which had been in the sleep mode through its journey on board the spacecraft. The test-firing was crucial to allowing the MOM to go ahead with the nominal plans for the Mars orbit insertion. The success had come even as the unmanned probe had entered the Mars’ gravitational sphere of influence on the same day.

A senior ISRO official on Wednesday said the Indian spacecraft had reached the Red Planet as scheduled. It successfully entered the Martian orbit and was circling Mars in an orbit whose nearest point to the plant (periapsis) was 421.7 km and farthest (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km. The orbit’s inclination with respect to Mars’ equatorial plane was 150 degrees, as intended. In this orbit, the spacecraft takes 72 hours, 51 minutes and 51 seconds for one revolution round the planet.

Radars at the earth stations – the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), Spain’s Madrid, Australia’s Canberra and India’s deep-space network at Byalalu near Bangalore – received radio signals from the Orbiter to confirm an insertion in the Mars orbit. Towards late evening, Isro had received the first set of data from the spacecraft. Almost 12 hours after being put into orbit, Mangalyaan sent some pictures, which sources said were those of Mars’ surface, to Isro’s ground station.

Over the next six months, the five scientific instruments on board the 475-kg (dry mass) MOM will study the Red Planet’s surface and its mineral composition, besides scanning its atmosphere for methane gas in search of life-sustaining elements.

India’s ambitious Mars mission had been launched on board a polar rocket from the spaceport at Sriharikota, off the Bay of Bengal, about 80 km northeast of Chennai, on November 5 last year.

The fourth planet from the sun, the Mars is the second-smallest celestial body in the solar system. The Earth and that planet take an almost equal amount of time to rotate on their respective axes – Mars takes 24 hours and 37 minutes, compared with the earth’s 24 hours. For a revolution around the sun, however, the Mars takes 687 days, against the Earth’s 365.

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