ISRO mission to seek signs of life on Red Planet with Mangalyaan

Written by Huma Siddiqui | Updated: Nov 4 2013, 15:47pm hrs
India Mars missionAn ISRO spacecraft that will examine the finer details of Mars in unprecedented detail, is set to be launched on Tuesday atop PSLV.
Mars is no place for the faint-hearted. Arid, rocky, cold and apparently lifeless, the Red Planet offers few hospitalities. Yet, some of the nations with rocket-sending capabilities are ever eager to explore and ultimately step foot on the ultimate lonely planet destination. This is because like Earth, this fourth planet from the Sun has polar ice caps and clouds in its atmosphere, seasonal weather patterns, volcanoes and other recognisable features. Most important, the objective is to find whether there is life on Mars. After all, a quest for a possible human habitat on Mars has always been there.

In sync with this line of thought, India is gearing up for its first ever space undertaking to the Red Planet. An Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) spacecraft that will examine the finer details of Mars in unprecedented detail, is set to be launched tomorrow atop Indias highly reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from a seaside launch pad in Sriharikota. The new space initiative, dubbed the Mars Orbiter Mission, is the brainchild of ISRO. If the PSLV does not go up before November 19,

ISRO has to wait for another five years to get similar conditions.

Internationally, so far only five other space agencies have been able to send up missions to Marsand about half of the 45-odd mission sent up have failed to even reach Mars. A NASA spacecraft that will probe the upper atmosphere of Mars is also undergoing final preparations and is expected to be launched on November 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But Indias first step to another planet is exciting not just because its a first, but because its one that will keep the scientist community on edge for all of nine months, until the spacecraft actually reaches its spot around Mars.

The Rs 450-crore, 1,350 kilogram orbiter, also known as Mangalyaan, will conduct a highly valuable search for potential signatures of Martian methanewhich could stem from either living or non-living sources. The historic Mars bound probe also serves as a forerunner to bolder robotic exploration goals. The Indian space agencys quest is to find signs of life on Mars and learn some lessons possibly. The principal aim is to test out Indias space technology to see if this emerging space-faring nation is capable of interplanetary missions. The spacecraft will also collect scientific information about the planets atmosphere and surface.

Interestingly, the cost of the Indian mission is claimed to be way below what the US space agency (NASA), Japan and China spent on their journey to Mars. Also, the spacecraft was built in a record time of 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.

ISRO officials inform that indigenisation of the necessary equipment has significantly kept costs down. For one, the decision to use the reliable PSLV has helped. The Mars mission launch will mark the PSLVs silver jubilee. The PSLV is Indias most mature rocket. ISRO has launched 35 satellites so far using PSLV and 10 are in waiting list for launch. The Mars orbiter will ride an advanced variant of the rocket, the PSLV-XLthe rocket type that took India to the moon in 2008.

Unlike other Mars missions which had a straight flight trajectory, Indias orbiter will first be placed in an elliptical Earth orbit because of the rockets weight constraints. The orbiter with its five instruments will be lifted through six burns of the liquid apogee motor in 25 days, before its transfer to the Mars trajectory for a nearly 300-day journey to the planet, the distance between Earth and Mars400 million km. It will restart on its own after 11 months for the Mars orbitinsertion. To ensure on-board autonomy, 68 software modules has been developed for the spacecraft.

The ISRO spacecraft will enter the Mars orbit in September next year. Project director Subbiah Arunan explains that the missions objective is to check if Mars ever had an environment in which life evolved. It will explore Mars surface, topography, minerology and atmosphere.

Since our first close-up picture of Mars in 1965, spacecraft voyages to the Red Planet have revealed a world strangely familiar with our own planet. Over the past three decades, spacecraft have shown us that Mars is rocky, cold, and dry beneath its hazy, pink sky. We have discovered that todays Martian wasteland hints at a formerly volatile world where volcanoes once raged, meteors plowed deep craters, and flash floods rushed over the land. And Mars continues to throw out new enticements with each landing or orbital pass made by our spacecraft. The most important being to find out whether there are life forms on the Red Planet.