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'A Shining Symbol': India's Mars Orbiter Mission Goes Into Orbit

India's Mars Orbiter Mission probe successfully maneuvered into orbit around the Red Planet, following in the footsteps of NASA's Maven orbiter.
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India's Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft successfully maneuvered itself into orbit around the Red Planet on Tuesday, following in the footsteps of NASA's Maven orbiter and sparking congratulations from around the world.

The car-sized probe -- on a mission estimated to cost about a ninth as much as NASA's -- is also known as MOM or Mangalyaan (Hindi for "Mars-Craft"). It executed its 24-minute engine burn successfully, the Indian Space Research Organization reported.

Mission controllers in Bangalore applauded the news — which came on a delayed basis because MOM had to emerge from Mars' far side and send the confirming signals across nearly 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) at the speed of light.

"History has been created today," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared once the confirmation was received. "We have dared to reach out into the unknown, and have achieved the near-impossible."

Modi said India was the first nation to succeed in its first attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars. (The European Space Agency, which successfully sent its Mars Express orbiter to the Red Planet in 2003 but lost its Beagle 2 lander, could quibble over that.)

MOM's success gave a boost to India's status as a technological power, and Modi made the most of it. The nation of 1.25 billion faces deep challenges over controlling its population growth and reducing poverty, but the prime minister said successes in space would translate into innovations on Earth.

"Through your achievement, you have honored our forefathers, and inspired our future generations," Modi told the mission team. "We Indians are a proud people. Despite our many limitations, we aspire for the best. The success of our space program is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation."

MOM blasted off from India's Satish Dhawan Space Center in November 2013, a few days before Maven was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Maven, which takes its name from the acronym for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, successfully went into Martian orbit on Sunday night.

Maven's team sent a congratulatory tweet to MOM's team just after the Indian probe's orbital insertion:

Over the next few weeks, both probes are due to adjust their orbits to prepare for scientific observations. MOM's mission cost is set at $74 million, compared to Maven mission's price tag of $671 million.

The two mission teams say they will collaborate over the months ahead. While Maven studies Mars' upper atmosphere, MOM will monitor the Red Planet's weather, take color pictures of the surface and map the planet's mineral composition.

Both missions aim to shed light on the scientific questions surrounding Mars' transition from a warm, wet world capable of supporting life to the cold, dry world it is today. MOM will be particularly well-suited to study Mars' atmospheric methane, which some see as a potential indicator of biological activity.

The orbiters should have a great view when Comet Siding Spring passes within 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers) of Mars on Oct. 19. At one time, scientists wondered whether the comet would actually hit the planet, but now mission managers say there's little risk of damage to any of the spacecraft at Mars. Instead, the probes will safely study the effect that cometary debris has on the planet's atmosphere.