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Isro dreamt an impossible dream, and made it happen

The successful Mars orbiter insertion on Wednesday is a demonstration of the country’s technology and it is exciting as this has been done with relatively lesser cost. The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) is now an established leader in utilitarian space technology — remote sensing and communication — say experts.

“It is important for Isro to take up other tasks that will challenge its limits and expand its capabilities in a worthwhile manner. Chandrayaan was the first such challenge in which Isro performed brilliantly. For example, it established the presence of water on the Moon that had only been hinted at by other studies, says M N Vahia, professor in the department of astronomy & astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

MOM is a well-organised, small (1,500 kg) satellite that can reveal interesting information about Mars and induce us to develop new technology and mission management skills. This is a technology demonstration mission.

The distance between Earth and Mars can vary between 54.6 million km to 401 million km. Even at its closest approach, Mars is like a fast moving Rs 5 coin about one kilometre away. So it is not surprising that many have failed to reach that planet.

“The first technological command we need to demonstrate is that we can undertake complex calculation of sending an object to a planet that is as small as that. The method that India adopted — of using the Earth’s gravity to slingshot MOM — is a peculiarly Indian approach. It takes a long time, and timing precision required for it is also demanding but is economical on the fuel used by the satellite,” he said.

The next objective is to understand how to send instruments into space with the required precision, make them hibernate for 300 days and then bring them back to life. We also need to learn how to make such missions intelligent enough to look after themselves and do what we want them to do on their own, and do it with highest economy, in weight, volume power and intelligence in the harsh space environment.

The sunlight for Mars is also much weaker than on Earth, and so the power available with the satellite is limited. Hence, the signal from MOM will be extremely faint. Getting faint signals from MOM is also a challenge. In this, the cooperation with NASA has been a great help and we have used NASA’s deep space network for this purpose.

Though largely a technology demonstration mission, MOM also carries five important instruments. These include imagers in optical and infrared, a photometer, an instrument to study the impact of neutral material around Mars and a methane sensor. While the imagers will allow us to image the surface of Mars and determine its surface and atmospheric light reflectivity, the neutral material detector will help us understand how the solar radiation falling on Mars ablates the atmospheric material.

The most watched detector will be the methane sensor. Methane gas is highly reactive and it reacts and changes its form quickly. It can only be sustained by continuing chemical reactions or life forms; on earth, the bacteria from the gut of cow are the most prolific producers of methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. There are some tentative detection of methane on Mars. Now, MOM will, once and for all, check if those results are true and, if so, what is the location from where the methane is coming.

The overall purpose of all missions to Mars is to study what will be needed to make it habitable. ISRO can use its superior capabilities in remote sensing to map the planet and see if it can be made liveable, or if life exists below the surface of Mars. So, for scientists, it is an exciting mission.

As a scientist I am excited about this demonstration of technology by ISRO; as an Indian, I am proud that ISRO has dreamed an impossible dream and made it possible; and as a tax payer, I am happy that it has done so with so little money. Yes, I am a proud and happy Indian today, excited that Indians now have clocked their first mission to Mars.

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