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ISRO gears up to launch India's first Mars mission next year. But the deadline is a challenge.
Ninety-six hours before Nasa's Curiosity rover touched down on Mars in spectacular fashion, India's own Rs 450-crore journey to the Red Planet finally got the much-awaited 'go' from the Union Cabinet on August 3, 2012.
If all goes well, a rocket will thunder off from the launch pad at Sriharikota spaceport near Chennai in November 2013, to much applause. Its payload, the as-yet-unnamed Indian Mars probe, will aim to reach the red planet over several months and would help put India in an exclusive Martian club. Only the US, Russia, China Japan and the European Space Agency have successfully launched missions to Mars.
The current plans envisages the mission lifting off in November 2013 and the spacecraft successfully entering a 500 km x 80, 000 km Martian orbit in September 2014. Its primary focus would be studying Mars' atmosphere.
DREAMS AND DEADLINES
Speaking to TOI-Crest on Wednesday, a top Isro official requesting anonymity acknowledged that with the November 2013 launch date, however, the 'time scale was tough. ' "Time is really short and the Mars team has to now literally slog 24x7 to adhere to the deadline. It will now be for the instruments guys to deliver, " he said.
If Isro misses the November 2013 launch window, the next available opportunity will only be in November 2016, and then in 2018.
Work has to progress at full steam at various Isro centres like the Space Application Centre in Ahmedabad, the Isro Satellite Centre in Bangalore, the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvanathanapuram, and the Ahmedabad-based Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), an Isro-affiliate. About 190 scientists will team up for the mission.
A document of the department of space states that the Indian Mars orbiter will be derived from the Chandrayaan series. It also states that compared to Chandrayaan, there will be on-board autonomy in communications in the Mars orbiter and also enhanced power generation.
During the launch, two terminals on board ships in the Pacific Ocean will be deployed. In addition, the Indian Deep Space Network at Byalalu near Bangalore will have to be strengthened to cater to the telemetry needs of a Mars mission.
Originally, ten instruments were suggested for the Indian Mars mission. But some will be eliminated on weight considerations. Though a final decision is awaited, indications are that four have been provisionally chosen. These are the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (Menca), the Plasma and Current Experiment (Pace) and the Miniature Electro Optic Sensor. The fourth instrument could either be the Mars Radiation Spectrometer, which will determine radiation levels that would help plan future manned missions to the Red Planet, or the Mars Colour Camera, which will be able to take pictures even from the probe's highly elliptical orbit.
According to U R Rao, chairman of the PRL (Physical Research Laboratory) council, who will play a key role in finalising the Mars payloads, "We have tentatively selected the instruments. The final decision, however, will depend upon the availability of the rocket. "
Rao, a former Isro chairman, explained that the choice is between the advanced version of the four-stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) - designated PSLV-XL - or the three-stage Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The GSLV can carry more weight, which means more payloads.
But counter-arguments abound on account of the GSLV's erratic performance. "For the first flight to Mars I think it would be wise to carry fewer payloads and use a highly reliable rocket like the PSLV, " said another official.
'ALL SYSTEMS GO'
Even prior to Union Cabinet approval, the Mars mission was steadily moving from the drawing boards to the launch pad. At the PRL, a Mars Mission Study Team has been set up, and engineering models of some instruments have already been fabricated. Rajmal Jain of PRL told TOI-Crest at the Cospar-2012 meet in Mysore recently that the mechanical structure of Pace was ready and had undergone tests at the Space Application Centre. He said that the preparation of the flight model will begin soon.
Kurian Mathew of Space Applications Centre stated that tests were being conducted on the Mars-bound Miniature Electro Optic Sensor weighing three kg. He said that the total mass of all the payloads will be a mere 10. 5 kg. "This weight constraint has resulted in some of the payloads having to be removed, " he pointed out.
In October 2010, Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan stated that "a mission to Mars has become a priority for us for several reasons. " And scientists say that the 2013 launch would assume greater significance as fitting commemoration of the 50th anniversary of India's space programme.
There's also the question of competition. Japan is looking at another probe;China has planned its next mission to Mars in 2016;while Nasa's Maven flight to Mars is scheduled for November 2013. Which is largely why space scientists say that it will be a scientific loss for India if an Indian mission to Mars is not launched in November 2013. "We will lose out, since the Chinese and Nasa missions are also focussing on the Martian atmosphere, so all our planned experiments will then become outdated, " warns a rather concerned scientist.
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