NASA findings won’t affect Mars mission, say ISRO officials

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists denied Thursday findings relayed by NASA rover Curiosity on September 19, that there is no trace of methane on the surface of Mars, have undermined Mangalyaan Mission or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

The first ISRO mission outside the gravitational field of the Earth, scheduled for launch on October 28, is also set to look for methane, a possible sign of life having existed on the red planet.

"The main MOM objective is to be a technology demonstrator for interplanetary missions, to demonstrate that we can travel to outer space and insert a spacecraft into the Mars orbit,'' said Deviprasad Karnik, director of public relations at ISRO.

S K Shivakumar, director of the ISRO Satellite Centre who shipped the spacecraft to Sriharikota Thursday, said MOM findings from a distance could support Curiosity findings or provide evidence of a portion of Mars not explored by Curiosity.

ISRO has, meanwhile, altered science objectives of the mission to study "Mars surface features, morphology, mineralogy and Martian atmosphere by indigenous scientific instruments".

It hit the final lap of the Rs 450-crore mission Thursday, with the spacecraft dispatched from Bangalore Wednesday reaching Sriharikota signalling the next phase — integration of the orbiter with its launch vehicle, the ISRO workhorse PSLV-C25.

The spacecraft and the launch vehicle will undergo a series of checks before the integration by October 10.

"We have now entered the 24/7 work mode. All stations will be in constant work mode. What has been a fairly big and national effort will now narrow down to a core team effort. There may be 40-50 scientists involved in the phase to the countdown,'' said Shivakumar.

"Though spacecraft launches on the PSLV are routine for ISRO, there is anxiety about the Mars mission because it is new. We have not ventured outside the

influence of the Earth," Karnik said.

Over the next few days, ISRO will also undertake fuelling of the launch vehicle. The mission will require some 852 kg of rocket fuel, 40 kg more than Chandrayaan 1, to take the orbiter on its 299-day, 400-million-km journey to the Mars orbit.

The spacecraft will rotate around the Earth orbit for a month before launching to the Mars orbit on November 30. It will be injected into Mars orbit on September 21, 2014.

ISRO officials said the weight of the spacecraft and its payload of five scientific instruments had been kept 1,343 kg because the PSLV can carry only around 1,600 kg.

"With a lower mass, we can achieve a higher apogee (furthest distance from Mars). It is not a compromise,'' Shivakumar said.

Former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair, however, said the PSLV restricts the scope of the mission, the 52nd such in the world. A mission using the under-development heavy lift GSLV (geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle) would have taken the orbiter closer to Mars with more instruments, he said.

"We cannot get anywhere near a circular orbit of Mars on this mission. For any remote-sensing application to be accurate and meaningful, it has to be a circular orbit. In this case, the closest distance between the spacecraft and Mars is expected to be around 350 km and the farthest 80,000 km.

"No meaningful experimentation can be done,'' the former ISRO chairman said.

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