NEW DELHI -- More than 10 months after it embarked on its historic space voyage, India's ambitious Mars Orbiter mission is expected to enter the orbit of the Red Planet tomorrow following the successful remote firing of its main engine.
The 440 Newton LAP, the liquid-fueled main engine of Mangalyaan (meaning Mars craft) was successfully fired for about four seconds Monday after being dormant since early December. The firing corrected the spacecraft's trajectory and reduced its velocity by 2.18 meters per second.
The Mars Orbiter insertion is scheduled for just after 7.17 am on Wednesday, Sept. 24, and involves firing a combination of 9 engines for about 24 minutes, according to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
The $74-million Mangalyaan mission was launched in early November. If it successfully enters the Martian orbit, it will be the first time this has been achieved on a maiden attempt. India will also be the first Asian country to reach Mars, and follows NASA of the U.S., the Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency.
The Mangalyaan insertion comes just four days after NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft completed a 10-month journey to enter Mars's orbit to study the Red Planet's upper atmosphere.
Professor U. R. Rao, ISRO's former chairman, says the Indian scientific community is very excited about the Mangalyaan mission, which is expected to conduct some "extremely important" experiments. "There will be five scientific experiments, including those to look at methane, Lyman alpha and neutral particles," said Rao.
Rao was asked how the Mangalyaan mission benefits ordinary people. "It is primarily a scientific experiment," he replied. "In [the] distant future, people talk of many proposals like unearthing resources of Mars and its colonization - which may be after 500 years. But right now, this mission is essentially to get to Mars."
From its Martian orbit, Mangalyaan will be able to observe Siding Spring, an Oort cloud comet named after an observatory in Australia that passes within 130,000 km of the Red Planet on October 19. "The comet has lot of methane, it has water," says Rao, a renowned scientist and recipient of the Padma Bhushan, India's the third highest civilian honor.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will observe tomorrow's historic event at an ISRO facility in Bangalore, capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Ahead of the Mars orbiter insertion operation, ISRO's current chairman, Dr K. Radhakrishnan, was optimistic when he spoke to NDTV, a private channel. "The spacecraft is healthy," he said. "It has completed (98% of its) journey towards Mars. We are now prepared for that crucial operation to take place tomorrow."