As India prepares to launch its Rs 450 crore mission to Mars this year, a top space official says the country's first martian odyssey – that has attracted some criticism – is not just for pride but for undertaking 'meaningful research'.
K Radhakrishnan, chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), also debunked perception in some quarters that the Mars Orbiter mission around the red planet, that's just three months away, is primarily a "feel-good" package to just pat ourselves on the back.
"It's not for pride because the exploration of Mars has its own scientific value and possibly a future habitat which people are talking about...may be 20 years...30 years from now...it's possible", he said in Bangalore in an interview, referring to the colonisation angle.
India will be the sixth country to launch a mission to Mars after the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and China.
ISRO says the primary objectives are to demonstrate India's technological capability to send a satellite to orbit around Mars and conduct meaningful experiments such as looking for signs of life, take pictures of the red planet and study Martian environment.
"What's the most interesting question on Mars? - life. So, we talk about Methane...which is of biological origin or geological origin. So, we have a methane sensor plus a thermal infrared spectrometer. These two together should be able to give some information", said Radhakrishnan, who is also secretary in the Department of Space, said.
Critics of the Indian Mars mission wondered whether the country can afford huge costs for this space voyage.
The Mars satellite, which would be launched on board Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-XL), will carry compact science experiments, totalling a mass of 15 kg. There will be five instruments to study Martian surface, atmosphere and mineralogy.
After leaving earth orbit in November, the spacecraft will cruise in deep space for 10 months using its own propulsion system and will reach Mars (Martian transfer trajectory) in September 2014.
The 1350 kg spacecraft subsequently is planned to enter into a 372 km by 80,000 km elliptical orbit around Mars.
"We want to look at environment of Mars for various elements like Deuterium-Hydrogen ratio. We also want to look at other constituents - neutral constituents", Radhakrishnan said.
"There are several things which Mars will tells us, this is what the scientific community thinks about the life on Mars", he said, adding, scientists started taking interest on Mars from the 18th century itself. "Mars is a subject of interest".
"Our (Mars mission) experiments are planned in such a way that you can decide when you want to put on each of these systems", Radhakrishnan said.
"If we succeed (in the mission), it positions India into group of countries who will have the ability to look at Mars. In future, certainly, there will be synergy between various countries in such exploration. That's taking place. That time India will be a country to be counted", he said.
ISRO is going to start the assembly of PSLV-C25, the rocket on board of which the Mars orbiter would be launched any day between October 21 and November seven, in August first week.
The mission would help ISRO understand the technological challenges of such an exploration, the possible existence of life and future colonisation of Mars, which is the nearest planet which has most resemblance to earth.
The PSLV-XL (PSLV-C25) will inject the spacecraft from the spaceport of Sriharikota in the 250 X 23000 km orbit.
Radhakrishnan said a number of technological challenges need to be negotiated for a successful Mars mission.
"Most important thing is we must have the insertion of this spacecraft in the Martian orbit", he said, noting that once the spacecraft leaves the earth orbit, propulsion system has to work after 300 days.
In the case of INSAT class of satellites and Chandrayaan-1, they reached orbital slots in one and two weeks, respectively. "This is the first time we have to operate the propulsion system after 300 days. There will be some performance deterioration", he said but added that ISRO has undertaken the test and knows how it would operate. So, the robustness and reliability of propulsion system has been raised "one order higher".
In Chandrayaan-1, ISRO had to deal with a distance of about four lakh kms, while in the case of Mars it's 400 million kms (4000 lakh kms).
"One of the technological challenges is to realise related deep space mission planning and communication management at a distance of nearly 400 million km", an ISRO official said.
The spacecraft has been provided with augmented radiation shielding for its prolonged exposure in the Van Allen belt. Due to the long range from Earth to Mars, there is a communication delay of 20 minutes one way itself. For this reason, ISRO has built high level of onboard autonomy within Mars orbiter.
Capture of the Mars orbit or the Martian insertion is the critical event that would determine the success of this mission, ISRO officials say.
On the experiments side, Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP) is aimed at studying the escape processes of Mars upper atmosphere through Deuterium/Hydrogen, Methane Sensor for MARS (MSM) would look to detect presence of Methane while Martian Exospheric Composition Explorer (MENCA) would study the neutral composition of the Martian upper atmosphere.
MARS Colour Camera (MCC) would undertake optical imaging and TIR imaging spectrometer (TIS) is targeted to map surface composition and mineralogy during India's first mission to a distant planet.
With MCC, Radhakrishnan said, it would also be possible to take pictures of two satellites of Mars – Phobos and Deimos.