India’s first mission to find signs of life on Mars


india-mission-to-marsBangalore: India is set to fly it’s first ever mission to another planet with the Mars mission slated for launch on November 5. The spacecraft named the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will take about nine months to move from the Earth’s orbit to the orbit of Mars and is estimated to reach the Martian orbit in September 2014. It’s Indian Space Research Organisation’s first quest to find signs of life on Mars and learn some lessons possibly.

“Life on Earth has a connection with Mars, so what we are trying to find is traces of life that existed on the planet at some point. But first and foremost what we are trying to do is to reach there. Eighty five per cent of the effort is that. Then conducting meaningful experiments, ” said ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan. Eight five per cent of the effort is just to reach Mars because that in itself is a complex process. ISRO scientists said while their tracking centre at Byalalu on the outskirts of Bangalore can track other satellites and spacecraft on real time and send commands for any maneuvering, any experiments, communication with MOM cannot happen instantly.

It takes 20 minutes to send a signal one way, so a 40-minute time-lag has to be taken into account while attempting any experiments. This is one of the reasons the spacecraft needs to function with maximum autonomy. That is, in case of a crisis in navigating towards Mars or around Mars, the spacecraft has technology built into it to trouble-shoot until signals can be sent from the ISRO tracking centre. “So, for several interventions that otherwise we would have been doing from the ground, they are done now by the spacecraft itself. That means you have a more effective, a smart satellite technology and this technology is going to be used in tomorrow’s communication and remote sensing satellites too. So what we have developed for this mission will trickle down to other missions next,” explains Dr Radhakrishnan. The excitement, filled with anxiety, will thus last all of 15 months from the launch – nine months until the mission reaches Mars and for six months that it will orbit around Mars to conduct experiments.

“The anxiety is there. It is like a baby conceived or having written your exam, waiting for the results. We have all done our homework and are waiting for the nail-biting happiness of nine months later,” Programme Director Dr M Annadurai said. The project, costing Rs 450 crore, was built over the last 18 months. The mission carries on board five instruments to conduct experiments. Two of them will give 360-degree panoramic pictures of the Martian surface and assess minerals on it. A third instrument tries to find out what kind of atmosphere once existed on Mars. A fourth tries to map just how much or how little water is actually there on the planet. The most important instrument however is one that attempts to check for the presence of methane – this, scientists feel – will indicate just what kind of life existed on Mars, if at all. “Mars and Earth are something similar. And while Mars being a possible habitat later is one thing – why Earth has a lot of life here is another. Mars also could have been in a similar condition thousands of years ago but today lost its atmosphere and its capability to have life. So what happened? If we are able to see that – that analysis can help us back on Earth itself. If we are going in that direction – of extinction – that scientific answer will be able to pre-empt us to avoid such disaster,” said Dr Annadurai.

While they look for life lessons on how we can save the Earth, ISRO is also trying to see if they can discover something that Mars missions by other space agencies like Russian and American ones haven’t discovered so far. “Chandrayaan has shown that even if it was 69th mission to explore the moon it found something important that previous missions have not seen – discovery of water molecules on the surface of the moon. It’s something that later missions have confirmed. Possibly this mission too can, using our bio-science instruments get us new discoveries. We are waiting for it,” said Dr Annadurai.

Across the world, only five other space agencies have been able to send up missions to Mars – and about half of the 45-odd mission sent up have failed to even reach Mars. So India’s first step to another planet is exciting not just because it’s a first, but because it’s one that will keep the scientist community on edge for all of nine months, until the spacecraft actually reaches its spot around Mars. A quest for a possible human habitat on Mars too has always been there. “If u look at space faring nations, they have been putting a target that by about 2030/ 2040, we need a human habitat on Mars. It’s a very complex process, a challenging process. It’s a dream. There is fantasy, dream, reality,” said Dr Radhakrishnan. When the Mars rocket takes off next week, it will carry with it not just a spacecraft, but the dreams of thousands of curious scientists looking for answers to some basic questions on our existence.