India's Flagship Martian Orbiter Has A Minor Hiccup Over Earth
November 11, 2013

India’s Flagship Martian Orbiter Has A Minor Hiccup Over Earth

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

India’s landmark mission to mars, which was launched just under a week ago, has hit a minor speed bump while in orbit over Earth. The country’s Mars Orbiter Mission, otherwise known as Mangalyaan or MOM, encountered a problem with a liquid fuel thruster, causing the probe to miss an intended higher orbital trajectory.

India maintains that this minor issue is just that and will not set the country back in its attempt to be only the fourth country to put an unmanned craft on or around Mars. It would join the USA, Russia and Europe as the only superpowers to reach the Red Planet. India’s attempt, if successful, would also be historic for the fact no country has ever launched a successful Mars mission on its first attempt.

Today’s mishap occurred during a maneuver designed to boost MOM’s distance from 44,500 miles to 62,100 miles. The scheduled engine burn failed to put the 3,000-pound craft in the intended orbit over the Earth. The engine burn was also intended to speed up the satellite, but it was apparent after the flow of fuel from the main engine ceased and the engine stopped that the boost was not going to happen, at least this time.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) said even after firing a backup thruster to keep the speed up and to help raise the craft’s orbit, the incremental velocity dipped. The burn did raise the satellite about 4,000 miles but this is still far below the intended altitude of 62,000 miles.

Scientists with the Indian space agency are now changing the mission plan to include an additional engine firing on Tuesday to help the craft reach its intended orbital path and correct velocity, which is set to be about 425 miles per second. Currently, MOM is traveling at speeds of around 114 feet per second.

The issue was discovered when two coils in the satellite, which are responsible for speeding the craft up and slowing it down, were turned on at the same time. This hiccup led to a blockage in the fuel line, causing the engine to cut off.

“The satellite’s engine doesn’t work when both coils are simultaneously on,” an anonymous spokesman for the ISRO told The Wall Street Journal. “This is not at all a setback, we got our redundancies [backup plans] checked by this process.”

The plan for Mangalyaan is to allow it to build up enough speed in Earth orbit before directing it out toward Mars. The slingshot maneuver will take place at the end of this month, barring any unforeseen malfunctions. So far, “everything is on track,” said the spokesman.

Once the craft breaks free of Earth’s orbit, it will spend 10 months in space traveling to Mars. If successful, it will mark the first time any Asian country has reached another planet. Attempts by Japan and China have both ended in failure.

India’s MOM spacecraft is also making headlines, not for its flagship status, but for its cost. While NASA is spending upwards of $460 million on its Mars probe, set to launch later this month, India’s Mangalyaan probe is costing only $73 million.

As this is such a small price to pay, many experts have labeled the country’s actions as misguided, saying they are wasting money that could be better put toward feeding a country that is among the poorest in the world.

However, ISRO chairman K. Radhakrishnan defended his country’s ambitions, calling the mission a “turning point” for India’s space program and one that could prove the nation’s capabilities in rocket technology.

Even with Monday’s slight hiccup, the country has gone far to prove it can be a major player in the space industry.

If tomorrow’s additional burn successfully puts MOM in the appropriate orbit, a final midnight burn will commence on November 16 to boost the spacecraft to 119,300 miles. Then on December 1, the engine will be fired again for the craft to begin its “trans-Martian injection,” dispatching the craft on its 300-day journey to the Red Planet.

If all goes as planned, India’s flagship orbiter will reach Mars on September 24, 2014 and the engine will fire again to slow the craft down enough to settle into Mars’ orbit. India’s PLSV rocket, which was India’s second choice for the mission, was not powerful enough to send MOM directly on its flight to Mars.

Monday’s unsuccessful burn used up about 4.4 pounds of the spacecraft’s 1,878 pounds of fuel.