With the launch of its Mars Orbiter Mission on Tuesday, India has passed the first test in its bid to orbit the Red Planet. Next up is a ride that history has shown to be nail-biting: only three space agencies have ever reached Mars.
But MOM isn't just about India's space prowess. As well as testing the Martian atmosphere for methane, a potential sign of life, MOM will provide know-how to aid a planned robotic moon voyage. Counter-intuitively, that mission may be more exciting, scientifically, than orbiting Mars.
MOM launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, near Chennai. It will remain in Earth orbit until 30?November, when it will be sent on its way to Mars. History points to challenges ahead, even for spacecraft that are designed to orbit, not land (see diagram). Success would be a towering achievement for India, but what will MOM contribute to science?
Compared to projects like NASA's Curiosity Mars rover or its upcoming MAVEN Mars orbiter?– to be studded with science gear?– MOM carries just five science instruments, the most interesting being the methane sensor.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) argues that the goals for MOM are mostly technological, showing that the team has the know-how to design and navigate a deep-space probe. That should add to the capabilities of the ISRO's next attempt to reach the moon, with Chandrayaan-2.
In 2008, India launched Chandrayaan-1, which lost contact prematurely after less than 10?months in lunar orbit. The nation's next moon probe is slated to be the first fully robotic mission to bundle an orbiter, a lander and a rover into a single launch, all developed by India. ISRO says that the craft will test out novel science instruments.
MOM will help because one of the trickiest phases in an interplanetary trek is launching and then perfecting orbital trajectories between Earth and a destination. The mission offers a chance to refine these techniques.
"Any time you fly a planetary mission you are going to learn something, like how to improvise when things don't go as planned," says Paul Spudis at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, who assisted with India's first lunar orbiter. Additional reporting by Jacob Aron n
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