India vs America: Earthling invaders in race to MARS

MAVEN and MOM neck and neck in plunge toward Red Planet

India and America are locked into a race to Mars - but it looks as if the Yanks will get there first.

On Sunday, NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will complete its 10 month journey and go into orbit around the Red Planet.

Its 442 million mile trip will conclude with a tricky manouvere which should see the craft ease into an elliptical orbit. Six thrusters will ignite to perform "settling burn" which will help the craft to point in the right direction. The six engines will then fire in pairs to slow the craft down and steer it into position.

The MAVEN mission has been going on for 11 years, with the craft itself launched in November 2013. But for the boffins in charge of it, the fun has just begun.

Once in orbit, MAVEN will begin observing the upper atmosphere of Mars, focusing on how it is affected by interactions with the sun and the solar wind.

It is hoped these tests might explain why Mars lost the water which was thought to once gush over its surface.

"These observations will help scientists determine how much gas from Mars’ atmosphere has been lost to space throughout the planet’s history and which processes have driven that loss," said Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for MAVEN at the University of Colorado.

“Every day at Mars is gold,” added David Mitchell, MAVEN’s project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

However, the Americans aren't alone up there. On Thursday next week, a craft launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will also segue into orbit, if all goes to plan.

“India will be the first country in the world to insert a spacecraft into the Martian orbit in a maiden attempt if the operation succeeds,” said ISRO scientific secretary V. Koteswara Rao. “And also the first Asian country to reach the Red Planet’s sphere.”

The Indian probe will test for methane in the atmosphere. If present, this could indicate the presence of life. ®

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