The India Mission to Mars launches tomorrow, and among its tasks is the search for methane, a sign of possible life.
If it successfully makes the trip, the Mangalyaan spacecraft will make India the fourth nation or group of nations to explore the Red Planet, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and Europe. None of these countries were successful on their first attempt. Nearly half of all attempts to reach Mars have failed, including missions by China and Japan.
The 56.5-hour countdown began yesterday. The PSLV-C25 will be launched tomorrow from the southeastern island of Shriharikota, where the Satish Dhawan Space Centre is based. It will first be placed into a long, elliptical orbit of the Earth.
The journey will take about 300 days and will cover about 485 million miles. Once there, the spacecraft will orbit the Red Planet to conduct experiments and survey the planet’s atmosphere and geology.
Data collected could bring scientists closer to answering questions, such as what happened to all the water that is thought to have been on Mars, and what conditions are needed to make life possible in the universe. The India mission to Mars will have about sixth months to gather data on Martian weather systems, including trying to detect methane, an important chemical for life on our planet.
The presence of methane on Mars could be an indication that the planet once supported life. NASA’s Curiosity did not detect any, which could be an indication that Mars has no microbial life as we know it.
The Curiosity used a turntable laser spectrometer to suck Martian air into a chamber in which it used infrared lasers to determine the composition of the gas. Six separate attempts did not reveal the presence of methane–but it remains a possibility that infinitesimal amounts of methane were present but unable to be detected.
The India mission to Mars has the opportunity to succeed in finding evidence for life where NASA failed. However, former Indian Space and Research Organization chairman G. Madhavan Nair is skeptical: “[that the mission is supposed to be looking for life on Mars] is utter nonsense. With a minuscule methane sensor, even if you want to look at methane, it cannot be done. NASA has come out very publicly after a rove experiment that there is no trace of life on Mars. In spite of that, somebody making this kind of statement…they are fooling the nation.”
It may come as a surprise that a nation with a largely impoverished population has such a successful space program, but India’s past successes have made India one of the stars of space exploration, a source of great national pride. India is also a world leader in weather and communications satellites. It seems natural now for India to shift attention to science satellites and join the world’s deep-space pioneers.
“We have a lot to understand about the universe, the solar system where we live in, and it has been humankind’s quest from the beginning,” says Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, current chairman of the Indian Space and Research Organization.
In 2008 India launched a lunar orbiter which made an important discovery: the existence of water on the moon.
India spends $1 billion every year on its space program, and has used research in space in a variety of applications at home, such as predicting weather catastrophes, analyzing underground aquifers, measuring soil erosion on the coast, and locating fish.
“The main thrust of space science in India has always been people-centric,” says K. Radhakrishnan, “to benefit the common man and society.”
The launch will be broadcast on live TV and on the web, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be in attendance.
The Mangalyaan will reach the orbit of Mars on September 21, 2014. Regardless of whether the India mission to Mars finds methane in its search, India has a lot to be proud of.
By K. Elsner