Two projects taking advantage of a three-week optimum launch window for flights to Mars – including India's first interplanetary mission

As the optimum period opens for flights to Mars, both India and the US are poised to launch Mars-orbiting craft. The US federal shutdown, though, threatened both missions, delaying them until the next launch window opens in 2015-2016. As it is, dispensations were granted to allow work on Nasa's orbiter, Maven, to continue and to provide essential tracking assistance for the Indian probe.

The latter, Mangalyaan or Mars-craft in Hindi, is India's first interplanetary mission and is to be launched from a site in Andhra Pradesh during a three-weeks window beginning on 28 October. Primarily a technology demonstration mission, it should spend 25 days in an elongated Earth-orbit before being boosted towards Mars, where it should enter another eccentric orbit next September. The science and imaging it will perform there is regarded as a secondary objective. Even so, it is remarkable that the project was only approved as recently as August 2012.

The launch period for Maven, or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, opens on 18 November with its arrival at Mars also due next September. From an orbit ranging between 150km and 6,200km above the planet, it is due to investigate the planet's upper atmosphere, studying how it interacts with the solar wind and how its gases and ions are escaping into space. Such mechanisms are crucial to understanding how the Martian climate and Mars's precious water have evolved over time.

 © Guardian News and Media 2013