India set to launch its debut Mars mission
It's the Mount Everest of the solar system, conquered only by an elite group. Now India is set to join the US, Russia and Europe in the exclusive club by sending a probe to Mars, with the launch expected on 5 November.
Established in the 1960s, India's space programme has so far focused on aiding the country's development, building satellites to spot potential sources of groundwater and monitor deforestation. Then in 2008 it launched Chandrayaan-1, a lunar orbiter, and now has plans for further probes to study the moon and space weather.
These projects may seem divorced from India's development goals, but could lead to spin-off applications in areas like remote sensing and shape a new generation of scientists and engineers, says K. R. Sridhara Murthi, who worked at the Indian Space Research Organisation for nearly 40 years.
The main goal of the $73 million Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is to prove that India can put a working probe into Mars orbit. That is no small feat – more than half of all Mars missions so far have failed. "It's a stretch goal," says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington DC.
One big challenge will be making sure the spacecraft's electronics function reliably in the harsh temperature and radiation conditions at Mars, he says. This was a problem for Chandrayaan-1, which discovered water on the lunar surface but died more than a year early because its electronics could not withstand the heat radiated from the moon.
Quest for methane
MOM should also help to unravel some of the planet's mysteries. It will carry five scientific instruments, including a methane sensor to try to pick up the gas in Mars's atmosphere. On Earth, methane is mainly produced by life, so there was a stir when Earth-based instruments and a European probe detected traces of it in Mars's atmosphere a decade ago. Some are sceptical of those results, believing they were triggered by methane in Earth's atmosphere or perhaps water in Mars's, and recently NASA's Curiosity rover added to the scepticism by finding no methane when it breathed in the Martian air. "I'd say the data are equivocal at the moment," says John Mustard of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
MOM may also help reveal how Mars became a cold, dry planet, with an atmosphere too thin to support liquid water for long periods. Gaping canyons and river-like channels point to large amounts of water – and therefore a thick, warming atmosphere – in the past. A study published this week suggests a form of natural geoengineering was partially responsible for the red planet's global cooling.
NASA's MAVEN mission, also due to launch next month, will tackle that same puzzle, but with a larger suite of instruments. "To have India executing a successful orbiter mission would be great for space science," says Mustard.