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The choice: back to caves or onward to Mars

Calcutta, Jan. 4: India’s first Mars mission to be launched later this year will seek to reconstruct the climate history of the planet and look for methane, a possible chemical signature of microbial life.

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) Mars orbiter spacecraft will carry five scientific instruments, senior space scientists said today at the 100th Indian Science Congress here.

The payloads are under development in three Isro laboratories at Ahmedabad, Thiruvananthapuram and Bangalore. They will be ready by April this year, after which engineers in Bangalore will integrate them with the spacecraft, the scientists said.

“Mars has been studied by others for a long time, but with our payloads, we are hoping to do some things more precisely than has been done earlier,” said Jitendra Nath Goswami, a planetary scientist and director of the space department’s Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad.

The Mars orbiter, estimated to cost about Rs 450 crore and approved by the Union cabinet last August, will be India’s first planetary mission and will pose challenges to Isro engineers that they have never encountered before — not even during Isro’s lunar orbiter mission in 2008-09.

Isro officials said the orbiter would be launched in October this year and, after several orbits around the Earth, will be injected on November 26 into a trajectory into deep space that will take it to Mars in about 300 days.

The spacecraft is expected to be inserted into Mars orbit on September 22, 2014. Isro engineers believe one of the biggest challenges will be to ensure that the spacecraft’s subsystems, particularly its rocket engine, that lie dormant during its deep space journey can be reactivated as it approaches Mars.

The Mars orbiter will carry a sensor that will look for methane, a compound that scientists at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and other foreign institutions had detected in the Martian atmosphere about four years ago.

The discovery is yet to be corroborated but had stirred excitement in sections of scientific circles because methane on the Earth is known to be released by some microbes as part of their digestive processes. However, scientists have pointed out that geological processes, too, can produce methane. “If at all methane exists on Mars, we’d like to find it and try to determine whether it has a geological origin or a biological origin,” Goswami said.

An instrument will study the ratios of the isotopes of hydrogen on Mars to determine the climate history of the planet.

“We know Mars had water and carbon dioxide in the past — this payload may help us understand better the processes through which Mars lost these two compounds,” Goswami said.

The Mars orbiter will go around the planet once in three days, its nearest point only 500km from the surface and its most distant point about 80,000km away.

Planetary scientists say a closer circular orbit would have provided better observations than this highly elliptical orbit. But space department sources said that nudging the spacecraft into a circular orbit would demand large amounts of fuel to fire thruster rockets on the spacecraft.

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