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article imageIndia's Mars Orbiter leaves Earth orbit heading for Red Planet

By Robert Myles     Dec 2, 2013 in Science
Bangalore - India’s Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter spacecraft left Earth orbit early Sunday, at the start of a 300-day trek, covering 680 million kilometers (425 million miles), to Mars.
The latest Mars Orbiter Mission, the first from the sub-continent, is scheduled to arrive in orbit around the Red Planet on Sept. 24, 2014.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) greeted the successful completion of the first stage of Mangalyaan’s mission on the Mars Orbiter Mission’s Twitter account, announcing, “Earth orbiting phase of the #Mangalyaan ended & now is on a course to encounter Mars after a journey of about 10 months around the Sun.”
Before leaving Earth orbit, after its launch from India’s Satish Dhawan Space Center on Sriharikota Island, Nov. 5, Mangalyaan completed six orbits of the Earth at progressively higher altitudes thanks to a series of engine burns.
The critical maneuver to place Mangalyaan on its correct flight-path to Mars, its Mars Transfer Trajectory, was successfully carried out in the early hours of Sunday, Dec. 1.
During this maneuver, the spacecraft's 440 Newton liquid engine was fired for about 22 minutes, increasing the velocity of the probe by 648 meters per second. Following completion of this maneuver, said ISRO, the Earth orbiting phase of the spacecraft ended.
The next stage for India’s Mars mission is a “slingshot” that will take the spacecraft around the Sun en route to Mars.
Ensuring the correct trajectory for the spacecraft is essential to guarantee it safely reaches its intended orbit around the red planet. Following a problem on Nov. 11, when Mangalyaan failed to reach its intended orbital mark, Indian mission controllers have penciled in a first course correction for around Dec. 11.
"We have planned right now four mid-course corrections; first one will be around Dec. 11 - plus or minus a couple of days depending on the deviation," V Koteswara Rao, scientific secretary with ISRO, is quoted on Russia Today.
The mission calls for further, high precision, course corrections to set the $72 million probe on the correct path to the red planet at a stage in its journey where it isn’t even in sight of Mars. As Mayank Vahia, professor in the astronomy and astrophysics department at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, explained, "You have to slow the spacecraft down once it gets close to Mars, to catch the orbit, but you can't wait until Mars is in the field of view to do it - that's too late."
When Mangalyaan reaches Mars orbit, it'll conduct research aimed at detecting the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere. On Earth, most methane is produced by living organisms. Vast amounts of the gas are stored in decomposed vegetation or animals in the permafrost regions of the Arctic and tundra or deep down on ocean floors.
Methane has previously been detected in the Martian atmosphere by Mars orbiters and by telescopic observation from Earth but it has yet to be established if Martian methane emanates from living organisms or results from geological processes on the red planet, reports BBC.
Recently, NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which continues to roam the Martian surface, failed to find any methane during atmospheric analysis.
With Curiosity Rover continuing its experiments on Mars and Mangalyaan’s departure from Earth orbit coming just a two weeks after NASA’s launch of its MAVEN Mars orbiter from Cape Canaveral, 2014 looks set to be an eventful year for the red planet yielding up a few more secrets.
More about Indian space program, Mars missions, Mangalyaan probe, exploration of solar system, exploration of mars
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