11 September 2013

ISRO unveils its maiden mission to Mars

Mangalyaan, India's satellite to Mars, could be launched in less than a month. 

The Indian Space Research Organization or ISRO is all set to launch an unmanned satellite 'Mangalyaan' or the 'Mars craft' to study the planet's atmosphere.

If all goes well, India may rendezvous with the Red planet Mars with this satellite, which is roughly the size of a small car. It could lift-off in less than a month from India's space port at Sriharikota on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. The event will be a defining moment for the country's space programme.

The global community is also excited about the launch. It is exciting to have the United States and India join together," NASA chief General Charles Bolden told NDTV. "We are now getting ready to do more studies on Mars's atmosphere with MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) that we're launching later in November to look at the upper atmosphere of Mars, a place that we don't know a lot about," he added.

General Bolden said India and US are working in partnership. "Your mission is going to be looking at Martian atmosphere. We're providing support through communications, data transmission," he said.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his Independence Day address in 2012 from the 17 th century Mughal era Red Fort in Delhi, had formally announced that India will be visiting the Red Planet. "Our spaceship will go near Mars and collect important scientific information. This spaceship to Mars will be a huge step for us in the area of science and technology," he had said.

ISRO, in the documents it submitted to the government for clearance, said it hoped to find out if Mars has a biosphere or even an environment in which life could have evolved. Experts suggest this is a tough question to answer through a tiny orbiting mission. 

ISRO seeks to put the 1350 kg Mangalyaan satellite costing around Rs. 450 crore in the Martian atmosphere using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The intended orbit is a highly elliptical one.

K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO, said the Mars orbiting mission will carry five Indian scientific instruments, including a multi-spectral camera, sophisticated spectrometers, and a highly sensitive methane sensor to check the origin of the gas. The instruments will study the atmosphere of the planet, look for Methane which could indicate if life exists on mars, take coloured photos of Mars, and analyse the presence of water.

However, ISRO admits the mission's limitations in its documents, saying it can be termed as more of a technological mission than a science mission'.

Since 1960, there have been 45 missions to Mars and only half of them have been successful. Former USSR and Russia, the US, Europe, Japan and China have all attempted missions to Mars.

Some has criticised the programme, questioning the need for such a program in India. "I don't understand the importance of India sending a space mission to Mars when half of its children are undernourished and half of all Indian families have no access to sanitation," social activist Jean Dreze had told the Financial Times last year. "It seems to be part of the Indian elite's delusional quest for superpower status, he added."

Other experts suggest that geo-political considerations may be behind India's Mars mission, referring to the space rivalry between India and China. K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO has denied this, saying, "We are not racing with anybody and the Indian mars mission has its own relevance." He, however, admits there is an element of'national pride' involved with the mission.

Some suggest after the successful Chandrayaan-1 mission the natural stepping stone for India was to try to reach Mars. In 2008, India successfully launched its maiden mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-1, which brought back the first clinching evidence of the presence of water on the parched lunar surface.

Mr Radhakrishnan said it is high time ISRO got out of making 'assembly line repeats of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and communication satellites' as those are best done by the industry. According to him, the next big challenge was to go to Mars.

Read more:  Mars once had falling snow, but lost it with the rest of its atmosphere


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