India is on track to launch its first Mars orbiter in November of this year, a senior scientist in charge of the mission says.

The unmanned satellite, christened “Maangalyaan,” will study the thin Martian atmosphere to determine the existence and sustainability of life and focus on climate, geology, origin and evolution of the planet, the scientist at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) said Jan. 10.

J.N. Goswami, lead scientist for the mission, says, “The mission is on full steam and the engineering models are ready. Equipment for the five experiments planned during the mission is expected to be delivered to ISRO in March. And we plan to start integrating them in the satellite [starting in] April.

“The previous missions to Mars have shown that there was water on the planet. We would want to know how and why the planet lost water and carbon dioxide,” Goswami says.

India will be the sixth country or group of countries to launch a mission to Mars after the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and China. China made an attempt to launch a satellite to Mars in November 2011, but the spacecraft was unable to escape Earth’s gravity and crashed into the Pacific Ocean in January.

The spacecraft will be boosted by a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which was also used for the Chandrayaan-1 Moon mission. “The orbiter mission is expected to take eight months to reach the Red Planet,” Goswami says.

The satellite is expected to leave Earth’s orbit on Nov. 26 and embark on its journey to Mars. Plans are being made to insert the satellite in an orbit around Mars on Sept. 22, 2014.

The spacecraft will have a scientific payload weighing 25 kg [55 lb.] and is proposed to be placed in an initial elliptical orbit of 500 x 80,000 km around the planet.

Among the payloads for the mission is the Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser, which would study the Martian atmosphere, and a methane sensor to look for the gas, considered a signature for life. The mission will try to determine whether the source of methane is thermogenic or biogenic.

The first model of the Maangalyaan was unveiled at the Indian Science Congress in Kolkata on Jan. 6.

In December 2011, India’s Space Commission approved the project, which is estimated to cost around 4.5 billion rupees ($80.7 million). The government has allocated 1.25 billion rupees for the initial phase of the mission for India’s current fiscal year, which ends March 31.

Mars crater photo: NASA