India’s first emissary to another planet, the Mars Orbiter Mission, is setting off on an 11-month-long odyssey from Sriharikota on Tuesday.

Although the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has benefited from its experience with the Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe despatched five years back, the technological hurdles that must be dealt with in an interplanetary mission of this sort are still very considerable.

The Soviet Union, the U.S., Japan and China failed to get to Mars on their first attempt but the European Space Agency succeeded on its first try with the Mars Express probe that was launched 10 years ago.

The Mars Orbiter Mission is “primarily a technology demonstration mission to demonstrate India’s ability to get into the Martian orbit, which is quite a challenging task,” remarked ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan.

“During the useful life of the orbiter, we also want to do meaningful scientific experiments.”

One of the five instruments on board the orbiter is a sensor designed to pick up signs of methane — a possible marker for life, extinct or extant.

Sharing scientific objectives

The Indian spacecraft shares some scientific objectives with America’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (Maven), which will be launched in two weeks.

Sensors on both spacecraft will examine processes that have drastically thinned the Martian atmosphere, which was once thick enough to allow substantial bodies of liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface.

There had been some preliminary discussions with the Indian science team, according to Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado in the U.S., who is MAVEN’s principal investigator.

“There are some overlapping objectives and at the point that we are both in orbit collecting data, we plan to work together with the data,” Dr. Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for America's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN) said during a recent press briefing.

The Indian orbiter would have a useful life of at least six months around Mars, according to the ISRO Chairman. Once its mission was complete, the spacecraft would not be allowed to crash on the planet. There would be enough propellant to take the probe away from the Martian environment, he said.

The article has been edited to incorporate the following correction:

In this news report, the quote — “There are some overlapping objectives and at the point that we are both in orbit collecting data, we plan to work together with the data” — was wrongly attributed to Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation. Actually, it was stated by Dr. Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for America's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (Maven) , during a recent press briefing. The misattribution occurred during editing.

Correction

>>An entry in the graphic titled “A voyage to Mars” that was inset into the report, “‘Meaningful scientific experiments’ to be conducted on the Red Planet ” (Nov. 5, 2013) said: “After a journey ... covering 680 million kilometres, the spacecraft will reach its destination.” A reader wrote to say that this was at variance with the opening sentence of “Mars mission is a month away” (Sept. 12, 2013, Science & Technology page) which read: “India’s very own Mars excursion — a journey of over 385 million km — is just over a month away.”

The Science Correspondent’s clarification: The distance between Earth and Mars varies depending on where the two planets are in their respective orbits around the Sun. At their farthest, the two planets are separated by a distance of about 400 million kilometres. At the time when Indian orbiter leaves Earth orbit and heads for Mars, the distance between the two planets will be about 250 million kilometres. However, the spacecraft will be taking a long, curving trajectory that minimises propellant consumption. In that trajectory, the probe will take nearly 300 days to traverse 680 million kilometres and reach Mars.

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