India is preparing to launch a robotic spacecraft towards the Red Planet – a first for the South Asian country.
The head of India’s space agency told the BBC the mission would demonstrate the technological capability to reach Mars orbit and carry out experiments.
The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will lift off at 0908 GMT on Tuesday atop an Indian-built rocket from Sriharikota.
If launch goes well, the spacecraft is set to travel for 300 days and should reach Mars orbit in September 2014.
Officials from the country’s space agency began a 56-hour countdown to the launch on Sunday.
Some observers are viewing the launch of the MOM, also known by the informal name of Mangalyaan (Mars-craft), as the latest salvo in a burgeoning space race between the Asian powers of India, China, Japan, South Korea and others.
India’s space ambition takes off
Prof Andrew Coates, from the UK’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, told BBC News: “I think this mission really brings India to the table of international space exploration. Interplanetary exploration is certainly not trivial to do, and [India] has found some interesting scientific niches to make some measurements in.”
Those niche areas include searching for the signature of methane (CH4) in the Martian atmosphere, which has previously been detected from Martian orbit and telescopes on Earth. However, Nasa’s Curiosity rover recently failed to find the gas in its measurements of atmospheric gases.
CH4 has a short lifetime in the Martian atmosphere, meaning that some source on the Red Planet must replenish it. Intriguingly, some 95% of atmospheric methane on Earth is produced by microbes, which has led some to propose the possibility of a biosphere deep beneath the Martian surface. But the gas can be produced by geological processes too, most notably by volcanism.
Definitive conclusions are likely to be elusive, but the spacecraft’s Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) instrument will aim to make measurements and map any potential sources of methane “plumes”.
The spacecraft will also examine the rate of loss of atmospheric gases to outer space. This could provide insights into the planet’s history; billions of years ago, the envelope of gases around Mars is thought to have been more substantial.
India approved the project in 2012, so mission scientists have worked around the clock to ready the craft in order to take advantage of a favourable alignment of the two planets that would allow the MOM to save on fuel during its journey to Mars.
The orbiter will be lofted on an evolved version of the Indian-developed Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, taking it into an elliptical orbit around Earth. It will then begin a series of six small engine burns to lift it to a higher orbit.
A final burn will send the craft off on an interplanetary trajectory, to begin its 300-day, 780-million km journey to the Red Planet. In order for the MOM to embark on the right trajectory, the mission must launch by 19 November and carry out its final orbital burn by 30 November.
The difficulty of visiting the Red Planet will not be lost on Indian officials; fewer than half the missions launched towards Mars have succeeded. But Prof Coates said that the planned mechanics for getting to Mars were on a sound footing, and that the probe stood a good chance as long as its engines fired correctly.
Some commentators have wondered whether India should be spending £60m on a scientific mission when the country has one of the highest rankings for childhood malnutrition in the world.
But those who defend such projects say the MOM is comparatively cheap and that the technological development required to mount this mission could indirectly benefit the country’s other activities.
Nisha Agrawal, chief executive of Oxfam in India, told the BBC: “India is home to poor people but it’s also an emerging economy, it’s a middle-income country, it’s a member of the G20. What is hard for people to get their head around is that we are home to poverty but also a global power.
“We are not really one country but two in one. And we need to do both things: contribute to global knowledge as well as take care of poor people at home.”
K Radhakrishnan, chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), told the BBC’s India Business Report: “Why India has to be in the space programme is a question that has been asked over the last 50 years. The answer then, now and in the future will be: ‘It is for finding solutions to the problems of man and society.’
He added: “A great revolution has taken place over these last 50 years in the country by a meagre expenditure that has been put into the space programme.”
Mr Radhakrishnan played down talk of a race between China and India in space, commenting: “We are not in a race with anybody, but I would say we are in a race with ourselves. We need to excel, we need to improve, and we need to bring new services.”
But a successful launch would allow India to surge ahead of regional rival China, at least in the exploration of Mars. China’s Yinghuo-1 spacecraft was to have reached Martian orbit in late 2012. But it was piggybacked on the Russian Phobos Grunt spacecraft, which became stranded in low-Earth orbit shortly after launch in November 2011.
The MOM was to have been launched as early as 28 October, but rough weather in the Pacific forced officials to delay the launch.