Liftoff! India's First Mars Probe Launches Toward the Red Planet

India's first-ever mission to Mars launched into space today (Nov. 5), beginning the country's first interplanetary mission to explore the solar system.

With a thunderous roar, India's Mars Orbiter Mission rocketed into space at 4:08 a.m. EST (0908 GMT) from the Indian Space Research Organisation's Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, where the local time will be 2:38 p.m. in the afternoon. An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle launched the probe on its 300-day trek into orbit around the Red Planet.

"The journey has only just begun," said ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan after the successful launch. [India's First Mars Mission (Photos)]

Less than an hour after liftoff, Radhakrishnan reported that India's Mars probe successfully entered a staging orbit around Earth. Mars Orbiter Mission director Kunhi Krishnan describing the launch as a start to a "grand and glorious" mission.

If all goes well, India's first Mars orbiter — called Mangalyaan (Hindi for "Mars Craft") — will arrive at the Red Planet on Sept. 24, 2014, making India the fourth country to successfully deliver a spacecraft to Mars. The $73.5 million Mangalyaan spacecraft weighs 2,980 pounds (1,350 kilograms). Through the course of several orbits, the spacecraft will perform a series of maneuvers to place it on a path to Mars.

Once at Mars, the probe will explore the surface features of the Red Planet and probe its atmosphere for signs of nonbiological or microbe-emitted methane. The spacecraft is also designed to test technology used for navigation, communication and interplanetary space travel, ISRO officials have said.

"We have a lot to understand about the universe, the solar system where we live in, and it has been humankind's quest from the beginning," Radhakrishnan told the Associated Press before launch.

If the probe reaches Mars, it will make India the fourth country (or collaboration of countries) to reach the Red Planet after the former Soviet Union, the United States and Europe. Nearly two-thirds of the 51 missions ever launched to Mars have failed.

"To visit another planet is a fantastic thing, the biggest thing," space scientist Yash Pal, a former chairman of India's University Grants Commission who was not involved in developing the Mars mission, told the Associated Press. "If you can afford airplanes and war machines, you can certainly spend something to fulfill the dreams of young people."

The Mangalyaan orbiter is carrying five instruments to Mars:

  • Lyman Alpha Photometer used to measure the loss process of water from the planet.

  • Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer to create a map of the Martian surface.

  • Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer to study Mars' atmosphere.

  • Mars Color Camera to take pictures of Mars' surfaces and Martian weather events. The camera will also take photos of moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.

  • Methane Sensor for Mars will search for methane in the atmosphere of Mars.

India's Mars mission follows the country's Chandrayaan 1 moon orbiter mission, which helped detect evidence of water ice on the lunar surface. The ISRO is also developing Chandrayaan 2, a follow-up mission, to continue its lunar exploration.

India is not the only country launching a mission to Mars this month. In the United States, NASA is planning to launch its own Mars orbiter — called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (Maven) — on Nov. 18.

NASA's Maven mission to Mars is designed to study the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail. The $671 million mission is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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