India’s first Interplanetary mission

In 2014, India became the fourth nation to launch a satellite to Mars and the first to do so successfully on a first attempt. In this story, three female scientists share their experience working on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission.


In 2014, India became the fourth nation to launch a satellite to Mars and the first to do so successfully on a first attempt.

In this story, three female scientists share their experience working on India's Mars Orbital Mission.

Take a look.


That is good height.


It was a race against time.


There were nail-biting moments.


We are going in a marathon race.


Now, can we reach Mars in the very first attempt?


ISRO -- that is the Indian Space Research Organisation -- was formed in the 1960s.

Based on the experience we gained at growing the space-science community within the country, ISRO decided that they could go farther out and go into interplanetary space and go to Mars.

I am Seetha.

I work as the program director here.

I coordinate all the space-science activities of ISRO.

MOM, or the Mars Orbital Mission, was a mission to prove that we have the capability to actually reach a planet and orbit around it.

That itself was a big challenge.

MOM had to be built within 18 months.

It was a race against time, because we were all first-timers working for an interplanetary mission.

I don't think I ever thought I would be working in ISRO Satellite Centre.

If you are doing mission operations, you're really doing it to watch a science-fiction movie.

You see that excitement in our day-to-day lives.

I'm Nandini Harinath.

I was designated as a project manager, mission design, and a deputy director for the Mars Orbiter Mission.

The placement of Earth and Mars such that you traverse with minimum energy.

That comes once in two years.

We wanted to get into a capture orbit.

Capture orbit in the sense this orbiter remains around Mars.

We went for an elliptical orbit, because a more circular orbit would have required more fuel.

The main purpose of Mars Orbiter Mission to derive many other technologies -- launching, insertion in the orbit, autonomy, but, also, we should have payloads so that our scientists also start working on the Mars atmosphere, Mars science, which will be helpful for the future missions.

And I was deployed on this project.

I'm Minal Rohit and I'm a scientist/engineer.

And I was project manager for Methane Sensors for Mars.

That's one of the payloads which was flown on the Mars Orbiter Mission.

When I was small, I saw many scientists wearing white garments, and it was so fascinating.

And, at that moment, I thought like, 'Oh, wow.

How good to be there.'

One challenge was -- all the payloads were made small and compact.

15 kilograms for all the payloads.

And these payloads had to be meant for the rugged space environment.

So that was a challenge.

Methane Sensor for Mars -- I consider it's a first baby.

The presence of methane indirectly hints at the possibility of the presence of life.

That was one of the reasons why that payload was extremely important.

So, for that, it was very less time.

It was hardly, I think, six months.

And we had to come up with all designs, all concept model, everything.

Dr. Seetha -- she's a very strict lady, okay?

[ Laughs ] She was very particular like, 'What is the primary objective?

Are your cameras going to meet that?

How are you going to meet that?

How are you going to demonstrate it?'

It was very stressful.

We have a Mars Colour Camera, MCC.

It was for outreach to the country.

Motivation and enthusiasm into the public -- they wanted to bring it.

Every launch gives me butterflies in the stomach.

[ Laughs ]

The weather was not favorable.

The prior six days was delayed.

Already, the margins were getting eaten up.

Stand by for the time mark.

Mark is one minute and counting.

Please lift off.

Please lift off.

Plus-1, plus-2... [ Cheers and applause ], plus-5.

We were relieved and happy that the launch vector had put us in the right orbit.

After some few hours, Mars Colour Camera is going to be on.

[ Laughing ] India came up there, and that was the moment.

We needed a certain velocity to get out of the Earth sphere of influence.

And we couldn't do it in one shot, because our engine wasn't that powerful.

So we had to gain that energy slowly.

So every time we went around the Earth, we would fire the engine to get that extra energy.

So, after six such burns, the orbiter had enough velocity to exit from the Earth sphere of influence.

And it went into the cruise.

The cruise to Mars -- that was about nine months.

Just like a baby's delivered, but nine months in the womb, it has to be taken care.


Our Mars Orbit Insertion was the grand day.

That was 24 September 2014.

We'll never forget it in all our lives.

Of course, the Mars Orbit Insertion -- that was the most critical maneuver.

If we had had slightly less velocity, we would have crashed onto Mars.

If we had had more velocity, we would have just gone off as a fly-by.

It's like hitting a bull's-eye on a dartboard, standing some 10,000 kilometers away.

We want to turn it.

It turned behind Mars, and then for 15 minutes, we just were holding our breath.

Communication was established, and we saw the telemetry and that it was in orbit.

That was probably the sweetest words we heard on that day.

Orbiter was working.

Everybody got it from the console.

[ Laughs ]

It was an excellent moment.

People will never forget that moment.

Then Madam Seetha asked, 'Where is the data?'

[ Laughs ] Now the focus turned on the camera.

This image is from various Mars missions.

We're actually using mosaicked images, using several hundred images.

And because the orbit -- The farthest point was 80,000 kilometers away, we could get the entire Mars disk in one single frame.

And, so, that was what caught the public eye.

That's the reward.

We are there.

We are there, looking with our own eyes.

We had designed it for a six-month lifetime.

And since our instruments are working well, we continue to operate the mission and take as much data as we can.

I think, today, only 40% of the missions to Mars were successful, and we've done it in the first attempt.

[ Laughs ] And it was done on a shoestring budget and done in a very short time.

There are hundreds of engineers who have worked day and night to push this on time.

When I started my career, there were few ladies working along with me, and now there are quite a lot of women, in both science and engineering, working in ISRO.

♪♪ This has been a great stepping-stone for ISRO to get the confidence for going farther out into space.

It's one event in which the whole country participated.

There were schools watching it live.

And there were so many people looking at it at that point of time.

When I was, like, small, I had a dream to help common man.

When they see something like this in newspaper and media, then they really feel that, 'Yes, why not?'