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India's Mars Orbiter Mission makes big breakthrough

Srinivas Laxman, Indian Space Correspondent
Mar 5, 2015, 17:17 UTC

Sen—India’s $71 million Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to the Red Planet, which entered Martian orbit on Sept. 24, 2014, has made an important breakthrough.

For the first time an instrument on board the spacecraft, the Methane Sensor For Mars, has recorded radiation on the surface of Mars which in turn reflected the Sun’s radiation back into space.

The process is known as albedo, and it is the measure of the reflectivity of Mars’ surface. The announcement was made by the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on Facebook. MOM was launched on November 5, 2013, and “hit a century”, to use a cricketing term, by observing the radiation from orbit on Jan. 1, 2015.

According to ISRO officials, this detection is significant because it marks an important step towards the sensor, designed and fabricated at ISRO’s Space Application Centre in Ahmedabad, possibly sniffing methane in the months ahead. The hunt for methane is one of the major roles of MOM as it would suggest whether there is life on Mars or not.


A close-up view of a portion of the gigantic Valles Marineris Canyon of Mars. Image credit: ISRO

The Facebook post states that observing the surface of the planet depends upon how the radiation is reflected back. “Reflected solar radiation from Mars will provide a lot of information about the planet’s surface as well as its atmosphere,’’ it states.

The data was measured in 1.65 micron in an infrared wavelength and reflects the assessment up until Dec. 16, 2014.

The information provided by the sensor, along with the data provided by the Mars Colour Camera, will be useful to study the surface properties of Mars, according to ISRO’s Facebook post.

Though ISRO scientists declined to be identified, a former space agency scientist, Syed Maqbool Ahmed, who was a part of India’s maiden voyage to the moon, Chandrayaan-1, compared the development to scaling Mount Everest. 

“It means that the payload, Methane Sensor For Mars, has worked wonderfully,’’ he wrote in his blog on Wednesday. 


Eos Chaos area, part of the gigantic Valles Marineris Canyon of Mars Image credit: ISRO

In all MOM is equipped with five payloads. Of these, the camera started transmitting pictures a fortnight after its launch, the first one being on Nov. 19, 2014, about a cyclone developing off the coast of Andhra Pradesh. The Methane Sensor For Mars is the second instrument whose data has been announced by ISRO.

Officials said that the space agency will declare the scientific results of the payloads only after a thorough peer review. With regards to any announcement relating to methane, they said they will exercise considerable caution as the subject is somewhat sensitive and can become controversial.

They cite the example of NASA’s Curiosity mission which touched down on the Red Planet on Aug. 6, 2012. Months after it landed there was an annoucement by NASA that the nearly one-tonne rover did not find methane. However, in December 2014 the space agency said that Curiosity had detected methane. 

They said that any discovery by Curiosity was localised—meaning that it focused on a particular area of Mars. “MOM on the other hand is executing a global mapping,’’ an official explained.

Along with the initial data from the Methane Sensor For Mars, ISRO also released fresh images on Tuesday sent by the camera.

The pictures include a 3D view of Arsia Mons, a huge volcano on Mars, a close-up view of a portion of the gigantic valley in Mars and the Eos Chaos area, a part of the gigantic Valles Marineris Canyon of Mars.

With regards to Arsia Mons the topography was taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the picture is by MOM’s camera. They were then superimposed. 

Scientists connected with the camera said that these pictures along with rest will help in determining the features of the Red Planet like for example the dust storms. “More images will be made available in the coming days,’’ a scientist added.