Tag Archives: Mangalyaan

20 Years at Mars!

One more post today, because this is an important one. ¬†ūüėČ ¬†Yesterday was Independence Day here in America, and for space geeks, it was important for another reason — it was the twentieth anniversary of the Pathfinder landing on Mars, and marked twenty years of continuous exploration of the Red Planet.

It’s amazing to think about. ¬†I remember exactly where I was on July 4, 1997. ¬†I was at an Independence Day party at my uncle’s house, and he had a TV on for the nerdier among us to watch and see when Pathfinder landed. ¬†It was very exciting. ¬†Pathfinder was the first lander to operate on Mars since November of 1982, when Viking 1 lost contact with Earth, a very long gap.

Mars had developed a powerful reputation as the Bermuda Triangle of the Solar System.  Before Viking, there had been 21 attempted missions to Mars, but only six had been successful.  After Viking, there were no further attempts until 1988, when the Soviet Union sent the ill-fated Phobos missions, both of which failed.  In 1992, NASA made another attempt with Mars Observer, which is believed to have exploded just before orbital insertion due to a fault in its propulsion system.  It seemed like Mars was off limits.  The next Mars transfer window came and went.

In 1996, another Mars window opened, and this time both NASA and the Russian Federation’s Rosaviacosmos were prepared to send spacecraft. ¬†It would be one of the last ambitious deep space efforts by Roscosmos for some time. ¬†Rosaviacosmos sent Mars 96, a highly ambitious spacecraft built collaboratively with European nations and carrying an orbiter, landers, and ground penetrators. ¬†It failed to leave Earth orbit, and eventually reentered Earth’s atmosphere. ¬†(The same fate would later befall Fobos-Grunt.) ¬† ¬†NASA sent Mars Pathfinder, its hitchhiking Sojourner rover, and Mars Global Surveyor.

On July 4, 1997, Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars with an innovative tetrahedral lander studded with airbags, which allowed it to hit the surface in any configuration and still end up upright at the end.  Although Pathfinder had a brief scare due to an undetected race condition in its computer software, it was recovered and went on to a very full mission, deploying the breadbox-sized Sojourner rover to become the first wheels on Mars.  Pathfinder continued operating until October 7, 1997, beating its design specs by about two and a half months.

But before it failed, another spacecraft arrived: Mars Global Surveyor, the first fully successful Mars orbiter since the Viking Orbiters in the 1970s.  Mars Global Surveyor set a record (since beaten) for total operating time at Mars, lasting nearly a decade (well past its one-year primary mission), going on to conduct joint observations with later spacecraft and serving as the first Mars communications relay station, transmitting data from landers back to Earth.

After Pathfinder and MGS arrived, many more followed, although Mars continued to earn its reputation as the Eater of Space Probes. ¬†The 1998 launch window was fraught with failures, from the Japanese Nozomi probe (ran out of propellant prematurely due to a fault), to NASA’s Mars Climate Observer (killed by an unknown unit conversion error resulting in deorbit rather than orbit capture), to Mars Polar Lander (lost due to premature shutdown of the landing engine) and its piggybacked Deep Space 2 penetrator (MPL crashed before it could be deployed). ¬†But the 2001 window showed a reversal of fortunes. ¬†MGS, the lone operational spacecraft at Mars, would be joined by NASA’s Mars Odyssey 2001, which remains in operation today. ¬†In 2003, MGS and Odyssey would be joined by ESA’s Mars Express, which continues to operate today, although Mars Express’s piggybacked Beagle 2 lander (provided by the United Kingdom) never called home. ¬†Orbital photography eventually revealed that it had landed in a very unfortunate posture among a boulder field, and was likely unable to open itself properly — this is a risk for any robotic lander, and one that is nearly impossible to prevent. ¬† ¬†But also in 2003 launched two of the most phenomenal overachievers in the history of Mars exploration: NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. ¬†Both operated far past their original three-month mission. ¬†Spirit was eventually killed when it became mired in a posture which did not give its solar powers enough light during the long Martian winter, but Opportunity remains in operation today, having set both endurance and mileage records.

The 2005 launch window saw the most powerful camera ever sent to Mars, aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. ¬†This spacecraft has enabled exquisitely detailed imagery over time, tracking changes in the surface features of the Red Planet beyond the capabilities of its predecessors, and even photographing many of the landers and rovers. MRO remains in operation today. ¬†In 2007, Mars Phoenix Lander was sent, partially reflying some of the experiments planned for Mars Polar Lander, as well as following new plans, adhering to the overall NASA strategy of “follow the water”. ¬†Phoenix operated for 157 sols (Martian days), nearly double the planned mission duration, when the polar darkness of winter arrived and claimed it. ¬†Among its many discoveries was the first observation of liquid water on the surface of Mars, likely water melted from the icepack by its landing rockets and then briefly recondensed on the spacecraft’s landing legs before boiling away in the low atmospheric pressure.

The 2011 window saw both tragedy and triumph — first, the loss of Roscosmos’ Fobos-Grunt and its piggybacked Yinghu0-1 lander from China, and then the brilliant success of Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”. ¬†Curiosity is by far the largest rover ever sent to another world, so large that the tetrahedral airbag lander of Mars Pathfinder and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers would not suffice. ¬†Instead, a “Skycrane” vehicle was devised to bring it in like a helicopter. ¬†The system worked perfectly, and Curiosity remains in operation today, although the perils of exploring the unknown have been driven home by the shocking amount of damage in its aluminum wheels; the rocks of Gale Crater seem to be much harder and sharper than those encountered anywhere else that landers have visited.

In 2013, NASA’s MAVEN was launched; it is still operating in Mars orbit today. ¬†And another nation joined the elite club of deep space explorers, as India’s ISRO placed the Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission) spacecraft into Mars orbit. ¬†It, too, remains in operation today. ¬†2016, the latest Mars window, saw the launch of ExoMars, a collaboration between ESA and Russia, and its piggybacked Schiaparelli lander. ¬†ExoMars remains in operation today, while Schiaparelli unfortunately was lost on landing.

So, that makes 20 continuous years of spacecraft operating on Mars or in orbit around it, and today there are six functioning orbiters and two functioning rovers on the surface.  It makes a wonderful change from the long drought of Mars exploration before that!  It is quite likely that there will never again be a gap in Mars exploration, not now that there are so many different space agencies at work on it.

The next window opens in May. ¬†NASA plans to launch its InSight spacecraft (delayed from the 2016 window).¬†In 2020, things get really busy. NASA has another mission in the planning stages, and Europe and Russia will be collaborating on the second ExoMars spacecraft. ¬†China and Japan both are planning to make their second attempts for Mars, and the United Arab Emirates is planning their first deep space mission, and India might manage their second Mangalyaan in that window (if not, they’ll likely make the following window). ¬†And perhaps most intriguingly of all, in 2020 SpaceX is planning their Red Dragon mission, the first crewed mission to Mars (unless someone manages to beat them to it). ¬†We’ll have to wait and see if they can actually make that date; it seems a tad ambitious to me! ¬†But wouldn’t it be exciting?



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Comet Siding Springs approaches Mars

Astronomers around the world are getting to watch an amazing event tomorrow — a very close flyby of Mars by Comet Siding Spring. ¬†Normally, this would be just a curiosity (since astronomers have ruled out the possibility of a collision) but this is a very fortuitous time for the encounter — two ground vehicles (Opportunity and Curiosity) and five orbiters (Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and Mangalyaan/Mars Orbiter Mission) are all ready to observe. ¬†MAVEN is particularly fortuitous; it’s specialized for atmospheric observations, which¬†makes it unusually well-equipped for this chance encounter with a comet’s tail.

Because yes, Mars is expected to pass through the comet’s tail. ¬†It’s pretty awesome, and the view from Curiosity in particular should be spectacular. ¬†(Curiosity is better equipped for night viewing, since it is nuclear powered and doesn’t need to conserve its batteries overnight.) ¬†NASA’s GSFC has released this video highlighting the experience:

It won’t just be the seven vehicles at Mars observing the comet. ¬†Other instruments, including the Hubble Space Telescope and STEREO-A, will also be watching, as will ground-based observers here on Earth. ¬†Amateurs with larger telescopes (8″ or better) and favorable weather will be able to follow the comet as it approaches and passes the red planet.

I can’t wait to see the pictures. ¬†ūüėČ

And if that weren’t exciting enough, the Orionids are starting up. ¬†That’s debris from Comet Halley, and it will peak in a few days. ¬†And on Thursday, many of us in North America (not all, alas) will be treated to a very nice partial solar eclipse. ¬†It’s a good week!

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Mangalyaan has arrived!

The Mars Orbiter Mission “Mangalyaan” is now in orbit around Mars, making India the fifth agency* to put a spacecraft in orbit there and setting a new record for the total number of probes operating simultaneously at another world: seven.¬† In reverse order of arrival, they are Mangalyaan, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, Mars Express, and Mars Odyssey 2001 (which holds the longevity record, currently closing in on its 13th anniversary at Mars).

Congragulations, India!¬† You’re past the hardest part of the mission.


*I say “agency” because the fourth was ESA, a cooperative venture between European nations, and the second was the USSR, which no longer exists but whose space program is still maintained by Russia

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Dragon Flies, and Mars Is Near

First off, after a scrub due to bad weather yesterday morning, SpaceX successfully launched the CRS-4 mission to the ISS. ¬†Due to a last-minute stage swap, the vehicle does not carry landing legs, but recovery won’t be attempted anyway (although a flyback and water landing sequence was performed for engineering purposes anyway). ¬†Now begins the chase to the ISS. ¬†Dragon is expected to be grappled and berthed on Tuesday at 6:04 AM CDT (1104 GMT). ¬†Driving the big robot arm will be European astronaut¬†Alexander Gerst. ¬†Cargo includes a 3D printer to test fabrication of components in microgravity,¬†2 IMAX cameras, fresh batteries for the US spacesuits, a golf club experiment, and some living passengers: fruit flies to investigate behavioral changes in microgravity, and 20 mice. ¬†Ten of the mice will be going into one part of the ISS to study animal handling procedures in outer space. ¬†The other ten will be going into another part of the ISS to investigate physiological changes in microgravity.

In the trunk section of the station is the $26 million ISS-RapidScat instrument to measure wind speeds, particularly in developing hurricanes to improve forecasting.  This is easily the most expensive payload sent up in the Dragon trunk, an option for delivering large unpressurized payloads to the ISS that is now unique since the end of Shuttle.  It will be unpacked later by the DEXTRE robot and installed on the nadir side of the ISS.

Dragon will stay at Station until mid-October, when it will return to Earth loaded with 4,000 pounds of material.

Meanwhile, across the Solar System, the next major planetary mission to reach its destination is getting ready. ¬†Engine firing will commence in just ten minutes; I’ll post later to let you know if the MAVEN spacecraft has successfully entered Mars orbit or not. ¬†ūüėČ ¬†India’s Mangalyaan, or Mars Orbiter Mission, is scheduled to¬†join it a few days later.

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And Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission, MOM) Is On Its Way!

After several engine burns over the past month, Mangalyaan is on its way to Mars! ¬†The last engine firing, lasting for 20 minutes, accelerated it to escape velocity and it is now on course for the red planet. ¬†India has become the fifth nation to send a probe beyond the Earth’s gravitational influence. ¬†Now the long cruise phase begins; the spacecraft will not reach Mars until next September.

Fair thee well, Mangalyaan!

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Mangalyaan (MOM) and Curiosity (MER): minor snags, but still trucking!

First off, Mangalyaan continues its slow climb up out of Earth’s gravity well, pushing its apogee higher and higher with each burn. ¬†Last weekend, the fourth burn was aborted prematurely, resulting in an apogee of 78,722 km instead of the 100,000 km target. ¬†The problem was studied; ISRO had attempted to use the primary and secondary coils of a flow control valve in the main propulsion system in parallel; if this would be successful, it’s a method that could be used to increase confidence for the critical Mars orbit insertion burn, for which any Mars spacecraft usually* only gets one chance. ¬† However, the parallel mode did not work as expected, and the two coils energized simultaneously. ¬†The main computer detected this condition and terminated the burn. ¬†A sequential method could be used instead once they reach the red planet, but for now they have plenty of time to decide; there are two more burns coming up, and then the long cruise to Mars.

Meanwhile, Curiosity also hit a minor hiccup when the R11 version of its onboard software was uploaded. ¬†A catalog file was still listing a file which was now absent with the new software in place; the computer concluded that this meant the memory was corrupt and rebooted. ¬†JPL switched it back to the R10 software and is preparing a fix. ¬†It’s an easy fix, but you don’t rush things when you’re working in deep space.

Ultimately, however, both spacecraft have weathered their glitches just fine. ¬†As ¬†legendary spacecraft engineer Dave Akin said, “To design a spacecraft right takes an infinite amount of effort. This is why it’s a good idea to design them to operate when some things are wrong .” ¬†Both Mangalyaan and Curiosity have demonstrated this beautifully, and though these were relatively minor snags, it is not in times of flawless operation that a mission is measured, but in how it responds to failures. ¬†So, onward and upward!


* The one exception was Japan’s Kaguya probe, which failed to perform its Mars orbit insertion and so went sailing on past into heliocentric orbit. ¬†It wasn’t dead, though, and a few years later, when it came by Mars again, they tried a second time. ¬†Unfortunately, the same fault occurred again, and it continued on in heliocentric orbit. ¬†A third attempt is out of the question; it was already beyond its design life by the second attempt.

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A successful launch of Mangalyaan, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission!

Mangalyaan launched successfully, precisely on schedule at 14:38 local time, or 0908 GMT, from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota, India.  Congratulations, ISRO!

It has achieved the desired initial parking orbit around Earth, and will spend the next month gradually working its way into the right position (energy-wise) to inject itself into the Mars transfer orbit.  The full process will require six burns at apogee, gradually raising the orbit, and if all goes well, by this time next month the probe will be on the long cruise to Mars.  So far, everything has gone precisely according to schedule, including solar array deployment, so things are looking very good!

Emily Lakdwalla: A picture-perfect launch for ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission

Times of India: Mars mission starts, Mangalyaan launched successfully

SpaceflightNow gallery showing spacecraft encapsulation

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