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Emily LakdawallaJuly 29, 2013

The road to Mars: updates on NASA's MAVEN and India's Mars Orbiter Mission

The 2013 launch window for Mars is fast approaching. November represents the next chance to send spacecraft to the Red Planet; the next window doesn't open until early 2016. So NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) are working hard to prepare their respective Mars missions for launch.

Here is a recent photo of NASA's MAVEN orbiter undergoing electromagnetic interference and electromagnetic compatibility testing at Lockheed Martin. That's a pretty complete looking spacecraft! No solar panels that I can see -- those usually get installed for the last time once the spacecraft is in Florida.

MAVEN undergoing testing

NASA / Lockheed Martin

MAVEN undergoing testing

And via Twitter on Saturday came news that some of MAVEN's equipment has already departed Denver on a truck bound for Cape Canaveral. I've signed up for access to watch it launch, though I'm not sure if I'll be able to travel to try to see it yet. I just checked the Kennedy Media Archive to see if they've posted any photos of MAVEN launch vehicle processing, but it's evidently too early yet. MAVEN will be launching on an Atlas V 401 (that's an Atlas V with a 4-meter fairing and no external solid rocket boosters).

Meanwhile, in India, the Deccan Herald reports that the integration of the Mars Orbiter Mission's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has begun. At the same time, payload integration is proceeding: all five science instruments are now with the spacecraft in Bangalore. The completed spacecraft will be delivered to India's launch facility in Sriharikota in mid-August for its November launch. That seems like a mighty short time for payload integration. On the other hand, the payload isn't really the point on this mission; India's first deep space operations is the point. If they even make it to Mars it will be a tremendous accomplishment.

Not everyone agrees. The Mars Orbiter Mission has been in the news lately because of some negative remarks by former ISRO chief G. Madhavan Nair. Numerous headlines last week, including one from the Times of India, quote him as saying that the mission is "a publicity stunt." His complaint is with the reduced size and capability of the spacecraft now being prepared for launch. The original plan had been to launch the Mars mission on India's next-generation heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), but delays and one launch disaster have meant that the GSLV has still not yet had a successful flight it has had a poor success rate, and a recent attempt at a lunch with a newly-developed cryogenic upper stage ended in disaster. India had to choose between delaying to 2016 or launching on the much smaller PSLV. The PSLV cannot send a spacecraft directly on an interplanetary trajectory; it will launch a downsized Mars Orbiter Mission, carrying a 15-kilogram science payload, into Earth orbit, and an upper stage will widen the spacecraft's orbit through multiple boosts into ever-larger ellipses until finally injecting it toward Mars a month later. Once at Mars, the same procedure will operate in reverse, but mass limitations will prevent the spacecraft from carrying enough fuel to bring it down into a low orbit. Instead, it will be in an elliptical orbit with a distant periapsis.

Personally, I'm relieved they are not combining the flight of a brand-new rocket with their most challenging-ever mission goals. But that's just me!

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)

ISRO / Glen Nagle

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)

Read more: mission status, Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), MAVEN

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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