MOM, get Mars on the cheap

Eric Bottlaender

Space specialist

November 01, 2022 at 2 p.m.


Mars Mangalayaan MOM ISRO © ISRO

Mars as seen by MOM (colors have been reworked) © ISRO

In order to show that it is capable of carrying out a long-term mission, the Indian space agency succeeded in designing and carrying out the Mangalyaan Mars mission in a few months and for less than 100 million dollars. A feat that will continue until 2022!

Its ambition, however, was limited to demonstrations of technology.

After the Moon, get Mars?

After a first successful “hit” with the Chandrayaan lunar probe, could space India double the bet? The announcements are going well, but it was not until 2010 that a feasibility study was officially launched for a “Mars Orbiter Mission”. This project almost immediately took on the diminutive of MOM, or Mangalyaan.

The target window (as a reminder, it is only really effective to send probes to Mars once every 2 years or 26 months) is already set at the end of 2013. Nevertheless, what to propose for this horizon ? The political ambitions are there, but ISRO has to do a lot with a little. Moreover, the Indian agency is already facing a complex situation with its most ambitious launcher, GSLV, which is not at all ready. As a result, there is no time to innovate. Like Chandrayaan, the Martian orbiter platform will take over that of the geostationary satellites produced by India, and the vehicle will take off thanks to the small PSLV rocket.

MOM Mangalayaan Mars probe ISRO © ISRO

The MOM probe at the time of placement in the cap in 2013 © ISRO

Space for less

The budget is also constrained: ISRO only has 74 million dollars to develop its probe, which effectively excludes any very complex instrument, including those developed abroad. MOM nevertheless takes on board about 15 kg of equipment, including a good imager (one optical, one thermal), an instrument to count charged particles in the exo-atmospheric environment and a double instrument dedicated to the upper atmosphere, supposed to measure the losses of Martian water molecules in deep space and the concentration of methane molecules (but this last detector has a software problem and does not work well).

However, the essential is elsewhere. Above all, the engineering teams are doing their best to ensure that the probe is reliable and can communicate with Earth from as far away as Mars. And at the end of October 2013, the contract is fulfilled: MOM is ready.

On the way step by step

Liftoff caused a stir on November 5, 2013. And not just because it succeeded and ISRO’s Mars mission (still in Earth orbit) was finally in space. It is in particular because that autumn, the film Gravity was a hit with audiences in cinemas around the world and triggered a certain enthusiasm… for a mission that cost less than the Hollywood budget for Alfonso Cuarón’s film!

Mangalyaan has therefore taken off, and its orbit only takes it 23,500 km away from Earth! Indeed, the PSLV rocket does not have the power to do more. It is therefore necessary that MOM itself fires its engine several times to raise its orbit first, then to leave the terrestrial attraction to begin its voyage towards Mars. More than half of the mass of the 1,350 kg vehicle consists of fuel alone!

It will take 25 days and 7 maneuvers in total to set off for the red planet. But even if the start is a little chaotic (on November 10, one of the ignitions is incomplete), Mangalyaan is on the way on November 30 and responds to orders.

Upon arrival of MOM (one of the photos here), the Curiosity rover is already studying the surface in the northwest of the Gale crater © ISRO

The Mars Orbiter Mission does not have a significant speed for its journey to Mars, which also requires four course corrections. This explains the arrival in September 2014 only, with only one decisive engine ignition which will last 23 minutes!

The operation is already planned, but success is far from guaranteed. And yet, MOM enters orbit of Mars and contacts the teams towards Earth. This feat is hailed around the world, as India thus becomes the 4e power to succeed in a Mars mission (after the United States, Russia and the ESA).

The probe is in an orbit that lasts 3 days and brings it both very close to the surface, at 421 km (enough to pass through atmospheric particles), and very far, at almost 77,000 km, an ideal distance to observe the Martian “disk” and its rotation. Better still, there are 40 kg of fuel left in the tank, enough for several years of activity.

March MOM Mangalayaan ISRO © ISRO

Light clouds make Mars pale from the stunning view of MOM from the high point of its orbit © ISRO

Around Mars, and after?

If the success of the insertion into orbit around Mars is beyond doubt, the probe and its mission will gradually fall into a discreet routine far from the media lights. Indeed, MOM has no major scientific objective, and its proof of concept is there: it communicates with the Earth, takes images and measurements, and can maneuver as needed. Moreover, the Indian teams do not seek to promote too much the photographs of the small color camera. The latter does not have the quality offered by other vehicles already in orbit around the red planet.

However, this policy surprises many researchers in the scientific community, because the construction of knowledge is rather fragmented around Mars. Roughly speaking, ” any pictures can help “. And during its passages close to the surface, MOM takes relatively new shots, with strong inclinations towards the horizon. ISRO will repeatedly open the data from the probe to different laboratories around the world, although little data will ultimately be made public.

Learn to operate a Mars probe

However, MOM quickly becomes an expert, especially in surviving events! From October 2014, the teams successfully maneuver it so that it avoids any effect linked to the comet Siding Springs which passes near Mars.

Then it manages to pass the two-week periods when the Sun is between Earth and Mars, blocking all communications, eclipses (its battery cannot last more than 1 hour 40 minutes without recharging the panels) and the drop in the level of its fuels. Its meager scientific qualities are nevertheless highlighted over time, with several publications of results in peer-reviewed journals. And for India, MOM remained for several years (while its initial mission was completed in 6 months) the enduring witness that it was possible to accomplish a lot with little.

MOM Mangalayaan surface photo of Mars Tyrrhenus Mons © ISRO

Tyrrhenus Mons on Mars, photographed by the MOM probe © ISRO

In recent years, rumors have multiplied about the end of MOM’s mission, the probe transmitting at fairly long intervals. Its potential as a “webcam on Mars” has never really been exploited, and the large Indian antennas have since had a lot to do with other satellites around the Earth, but also with the Chandrayaan 2 mission around the Moon.

MOM was a little out of the loop. It did not relay data to large NASA antennas, did not deal with ground rovers, and was not compatible with its neighbors to coordinate observations. Nevertheless, it will have continued its mission until 2022. ISRO announced the end of attempts to communicate with the probe in September. Contact was lost between March and April, after a series of eclipses lasting more than 7 hours in a row that MOM could not avoid due to a lack of maneuvering fuel. India intends to draw inspiration from this adventure for future missions in preparation, in particular to Venus.

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