Mars windows only open once every couple of years, so if you wanna go to Mars, now is the time!
First on deck is Mangalyaan, India’s Mars Orbiter. Click here for nearly-live updates from ISRO. The spacecraft was mated to the rocket at Sriharikota a couple of weeks ago. Over the weekend, spacecraft and upper stage were loaded with hypergolic propellants; today, the second stage was loaded. Vehicle is active in preparation for the final eight hours of the countdown. Actual liftoff (if weather cooperates and all goes well) is scheduled for the early afternoon in India, or 0908 GMT. Weather can scrub any launch, but so far the forecast is good — some clouds, but not violating launch constraints for the PSLV rocket.
If you want to watch it live, go to the ISRO website; the webcast will start at 1400 hours IST, or 0830 GMT. (That’s 2:30 AM Central Standard Time for us Minnesotans, so if you can’t sleep, there’s something cool to watch!)
It might seem strange that they have selected a relatively low-Isp propellant for the upper stage, but they actually have a good reason. The PSLV is not one of the most powerful rockets in the world, and it cannot lift an upper stage large enough to pull Mangalyaan directly into the Hohmann Transfer Orbit to Mars. It’s also why they are launching so much earlier than NASA’s 2013 Mars probe — since the upper stage can’t get them to Mars in one go, they’ll get there in several goes instead. Mangalyaan will spend a month orbiting the Earth, gradually building up energy until it is able to break Earth’s orbit and transfer to Mars; this requires they leave earlier, and use a long-term storable propellant like monomethyl hydrazine.
It’s an ambitious mission — well, any mission to Mars is, by definition, ambitious. With three active spacecraft orbiting the planet, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking Mars is routine now. But it’s still a very difficult planet to get to, and it’s got a well-earned reputation as the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system. The Indian Space Research Organization is only the fifth organization to make the attempt — and if it succeeds, will be the fourth to do so, after the US, USSR*, and ESA. Japan’s JAXA made an attempt which unfortunately failed despite enormous persistence on the part of the team.
So cross your fingers, and wish India luck!
*Notably, no post-Soviet Russian mission has succeeded. The spectacularly ambitious Phobos-Grunt attempted in the last Mars window unfortunately wound up in the ocean instead. Going to Mars is *hard*, even for people who’ve done it so many times before, and success is a tiny sliver of the possible outcomes, surrounded on all sides by a huge number of opportunities for spectacular disaster.
SPACE.com: India’s First Mission to Mars Launching Tuesday