India Mars Mission Launch 2013: Mangalyaan Orbiter Successfully Takes Off, Will Arrive At Red Planet In September

By Josh Lieberman on November 5, 2013 4:34 PM EST

India successfully launched a Mars orbiter today in the hopes of becoming the first Asian nation to place a craft in the Martian atmosphere. (Photo: Reuters)

India successfully launched a rocket bound for Mars today, hoping to become the first Asian nation to explore the Red Planet. If successful, India will join the United States, the former Soviet Union and the nations comprising the European Space Agency as the only countries to ever explore Mars. If India fails, it will join a list of unsuccessful Mars missions that includes Russia in 1996Japan in 1998 and a Russian-Chinese mission in 2011.

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Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) officials described the liftoff of the 3,000-pound orbiter Mangalyaan (meaning "Mars craft" in Hindi) as a "textbook launch." Mission director P. Kunhikrishnan said that one of the greatest outcomes from the mission will be "[c]apturing and igniting the young minds of India and across the globe."

But first, the Mangalyaan orbiter will have to get to Mars. The craft will need to execute a number of maneuvers and "short burns" over the next 20 to 25 days to raise its orbit, whereupon it will make a beeline for Mars. Then over course of 300 days the Mangalyaan will have to travel 485 million miles to reach orbit around Mars next September.

"The biggest challenge will be precisely navigating the spacecraft to Mars," said K. Radhakrishnan of the ISRO. "We will know if we pass our examination on Sept. 24, 2014."

Once in the orbit of the Martian atmosphere, Mangalyaan will have a couple of different jobs. The craft will take color pictures, create surface and mineral maps using a thermal imaging spectrometer and take readings of the Martian atmosphere to gain insights into its weather systems. It will also track methane, which could indicate life on Mars. In September, NASA's Curiosity rover surprised and disappointed many when it found no sign of Martian methane, contradicting to the 2003 discovery of "plumes" of methane on Mars.          

During its six months of exploring, Mangalyaan will hover 227 miles above the Martian surface at its closest point; its furthest distance from Mars during exploration will be 49,700 miles. At no point will it be close enough to wave to Curiosity, which will be singing happy birthday to itself a month before Mangalyaan enters the orbit of Mars. Poor, lonely Curiosity.

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