India's First Mars Mission Ready to Launch, Will Search for Methane

India's First Mars Mission Ready to Launch, Will Search for Methane

India plans to launch its first spacecraft to Mars on October 28.  The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) focuses more on technological than scientific objectives, but does carry several scientific instruments, including one that will search for methane.

The 1,350 kilogram MOM spacecraft will be launched by India’s Polar Space Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Sriharikota launch facility. The recent cyclone that hit India does not appear to have affected launch preparations.  NASA will provide tracking assistance to the Indian Space Research Organisation ISRO) using the Deep Space Network, and ISRO said on October 5 that NASA reaffirmed that it can support the mission despite the government shutdown.

The mission’s technological objectives are basically to demonstrate the capability to build a spacecraft that can get to Mars and enter orbit.  A 372 x 80,000 kilometer elliptical orbit is planned.  

MOM carries five scientific instruments including a sensor that will search for methane in the Martian atmosphere.  NASA announced in September that the Curiosity rover did not detect methane, which dampened hopes of finding evidence that life may once have existed there.  Scientists cautioned, however, that the lack of methane is not definitive in that regard because some microbes do not produce methane.   The finding was surprising because other Mars missions, like NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, as well as Earth-based observations, showed that there is methane.

The other four instruments on MOM are a color camera, a Thermal Infrared Spectrometer, the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer and a Lyman Alpha Photometer.   MOM is India’s first interplanetary spacecraft, but it did launch a mission to the Moon — Chandrayaan-1 in 2008.   That mission encountered a number of technical difficulties and operated for less than one year, instead of the planned two years.  It carried scientific instruments from a number of countries, including the United States, one of which — NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper — detected water on the lunar surface.    The MOM instruments are all from India.

MOM’s launch is scheduled for 4:15 pm local time at the launch site on October 28. The launch window is open through November 19. 


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