Mars. Maven. Mangalyaan: NASA, India orbiters face acid test


Maven, a Martian observatory arriving at the Red Planet, and India's Mangalyaan orbiter are each about to face major tests during their flights to Mars.

The American-designed Maven craft launched to Mars in 2013 enters orbit on Sept. 21 after its 442 million mile, 10-month journey.

To enter orbit, the vehicle must turn around, and six engines must first successfully fire in three sets of a pair of engines each. This maneuver is necessary to slow the vehicle enough for the gravity of Mars to take control of the vehicle. If the plan works, Maven will fall into an elliptical orbit around the planet. If the maneuver is not successful, the vehicle will fly past Mars, heading into space with no chance of recovery. The engine burn will begin at 9:37 p.m. EDT on Sept. 21.

Mangalyaan, the popular name of the India's Mars Orbiter Mission, was built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The vehicle will arrive at the Red Planet on Sept. 24, after its journey from launch on Nov. 5, 2013. It is carrying five scientific instruments for experiments after it completes the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) maneuver Sept. 24.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) spacecraft will help astronomers understand how the Red Planet lost its water long ago, devolving into a desert planet. The vehicle will spend six months after initial orbit insertion falling into its operational orbit. This path will bring the craft as close as 93 miles above the surface of the planet, in order to study the upper atmosphere. At its most distant point from Mars, Maven will orbit 3,853 miles above the planet.

"Everything continues to go well with Maven as it is readied for arrival at Mars on Sunday, Sept. 21. All spacecraft systems are operating nominally. We had scheduled a final Trajectory Correction Maneuver (TCM-4) for Sept. 12. However, the maneuver was canceled because the flight path did not warrant a correction. Maven is right on track," the Maven team reported in a mission status update.

Live television coverage of the event is scheduled from 9:30 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. EDT Sept. 21 on NASA TV.

Astronomers believe Mars once possessed a thicker atmosphere than seen today. This may have held in water, providing the planet with a much wetter environment than current conditions. Evidence of ancient riverbeds and lakes are seen on the surface, in addition to chemical analysis of the crust which reveals parts of the surface were once covered in water. As part of its research, the Maven Solar Wind Ion Analyzer will study the effect of a stream of charged particles coming from the sun on molecules in the Martian atmosphere.

The Indian space mission created a "Cheer India to Mars" contest for Indian nationals with the tagline "Show your love for MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission)." The ISRO urged people to post on its Facebook page in a contest to create the most imaginative mashups using a 3D application called Smartur Mangalyaan that offers a 3D view of the spacecraft and rocket launcher via augmented reality. It lets iOS and Android device users create selfie images showing themselves with the Indian spacecraft, a bit of selfie heaven.

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