India's Mars mission Q&A: what will Mangalyaan discover?
Can India afford the £60m it's costing to become the fourth agency to reach the Red Planet?
INDIA launched its first mission to Mars this morning when a rocket carrying an unmanned satellite blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre about 100 miles from Chennai. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is expected to reach the red planet's orbit by September 2014. Here are five key questions about the historic mission:
Why is it so significant?
India's space programme began 44 years ago, but this is the first time it has sent a mission "to study a celestial body outside Earth's sphere of influence", explains the Times of India. If the satellite makes it into the Red Planet's orbit, India's space agency will become the fourth in the world after those of the US, Russia and Europe to undertake a successful Mars mission. Some observers are viewing the launch of the MOM "as the latest salvo in a burgeoning space race between the Asian powers of India, China, Japan, South Korea and others", says the BBC.
What exactly is the Mars Orbiter?
The Orbiter, which is also known by the informal name of Mangalyaan (Mars-craft), is a 1,337 kilogram satellite "about the size of a small car", says Indian website Zee News. The MOM carries five scientific instruments weighing about 15 kilograms. They include a sensor that will measure the levels of methane in the Martian atmosphere, a colour camera and a thermal infrared imaging spectrometer to gauge the temperature of the planet's surface.
How long will it take to reach Mars?
If all goes to plan, the MOM will take about 300-days to make the 200-million-kilometre journey to Mars. That includes the 20-25 days it will spend in the Earth's orbit "building up the necessary velocity to break free from our planet's gravitational pull", explains Zee.
What scientific evidence is the MOM hoping to collect?
The search for methane in the Martian atmosphere is probably the most significant part of the MOM mission. Martian methane has been detected by sensors on Earth, but NASA's robotic rover Curiosity has failed to find the gas during its time on the planet. The Indian spacecraft will also examine the rate of loss of atmospheric gases to outer space, says the BBC. "This could provide insights into the planet's history; billions of years ago, the envelope of gases around Mars is thought to have been more substantial."
How much has the mission cost?
The MOM, which is seen as a demonstration of India's low-cost space technology, is costing an estimated £60m. That's "a fraction of foreign equivalents", says Zee. But the budget price hasn't stopped critics asking if a country with "one of the highest rankings for childhood malnutrition in the world" should be involved in the space race, says the BBC. Others question the scientific purpose of the mission. A spokesman for the Delhi Science Forum, said: "This is a highly suboptimal mission with limited scientific objectives". Meanwhile, the economist-activist Jean Dreze, said the mission "seems to be part of the Indian elite's delusional quest for superpower status". ·