It’ll be the cheapest ticket to the Red Planet, a world record in the history of Mars exploration. On November 5, when India’s unmanned orbiter mission blasts off from Sriharikota at 3.28pm it’ll carry a Rs 450-crore price tag way below what Nasa, the European Space Agency, Japan and China spent on their journey to Mars. Isro says indigenisation kept costs down. The decision to use the reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle PSLV) helped. The Mars mission aunch will mark the PSLV’s silver jubilee. The Orbiter will ride an advanced variant of the rocket, the PSLV-XL — the rocket type that took India to the moon in 2008. Jeffrey Plescia, a Mars researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, US, says the mission cost is less than 0.01% of India’s annual budget. This flight has another global first. Unlike other Mars missions which had a straight flight trajectory, India’s orbiter will first be placed in an elliptical Earth orbit because of the rocket’s weight constraints. The orbiter with its five instruments will be lifted through six burns of the liquid apogee motor in 25 days, before its transfer to the Mars trajectory for a nearly 300-day journey to the planet, the distance between Earth and Mars — 400mn km. If all goes well the spacecraft will enter the Mars orbit on September 21 next year.

This critical manoeuvre will be a nerve-wracking exercise for the team at the Indian Deep Space Network at Byalalu near Bangalore and in the city’s telemetry, tracking and command network because most Mars missions have failed at this stage. Globally, the success rate of Mars missions is just 33%. This is why Isro has its fingers crossed, programme director Mylswamy Annadurai says. If this feat is accomplished it’ll be a giant leap in India’s 50-year-old space programme. Former Isro chairman Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan describes the Mars mission as part of India’s planetary exploration strategy. “This mission could lead to international collaboration.” On reaching Mars the spacecraft with a six-month lifespan will operate in the 363 km x 80,000 km orbit. This means its nearest point to the Martian surface will be 363 km, the furthest 80,000 km. Project director Subbiah Arunan explains that the mission’s objective is to check if Mars ever had an environment in which life evolved. It will explore Mars’ surface, topography, minerology and atmosphere. Former Isro chairman UR Rao, who played a key role in picking the instruments, says the methane experiment will help scientists determine its sources. He dismissed a Nasa announcement that its Curiosity rover had failed to detect methane on Mars. “It was said the moon was dry. Our mission Chandrayaan-1 detected water. I’m confident our Mars mission will make some important findings,” he saod. Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan says since the spacecraft will be nearly 400mn km away, signals from the ground station will take around 20 minutes to travel to the craft and vice versa. The spacecraft is thus designed to have onboard autonomy. After it begins its nearly 300-day journey, the liquid apogee motor will shut down. It will restart on its own after 11 months for the Mars orbit insertion. To ensure onboard autonomy 68 software modules were developed, Arunan says.

Aug 2010 Isro forms team headed by V Adimurthy to study mission feasibility. Team gives go-ahead Jul 14, 2012 Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan announces Mars mission in final stages of govt nod Aug 15, 2012 PM Manmohan Singh announces Mars mission during I-day address from Red Fort Aug 5, 2013 Assembly of PSLV begins at Sriharikota marks start of mars Mission launch campaign Oct 2 Mars Orbiter shipped to Sriharikota for launch Oct 28 Oct 22 Launch potsponed to Nov 5. If, for some reason, Isro doesn’t launch now the next opportunity will be in January 2016 and then in 2018