Tonight, MOM spacecraft will have a ringside view of Comet Siding Spring

We are at the right place at the right time: ISRO

October 19, 2014 03:47 am | Updated November 17, 2021 04:51 am IST - BANGALORE:

On Sunday night, India’s biggest inter-planetary outing will have its ‘once in a million years opportunity’.

The Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft will have a ringside view of a unique comet. The spacecraft has been at the vantage point since September 24. The teams at the Indian Space Research Organisation have kept vigil for the impending visit of Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) since then.

The comet will be closest to Mars at 11.40 p.m. on Sunday and the encounter will last 21 minutes.

‘Big bonus for India’

“It is a very big bonus [for ISRO and India] and an opportunity that comes once in a million years,” exulted S. Arunan, ISRO’s MOM Project Director who has spearheaded the mission for over two years.

“The comet comes within 1.35 lakh km of Mars, which is very close astronomically. We are at the right place at the right time and are extremely fortunate to watch this event.”

ISRO’s payload teams plan to operate four of the five instruments during this period, including the Mars Colour Camera and the Methane Sensor for Mars and the Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer.

They will keep vigil from 10 p.m. on Sunday until 4 a.m. on Monday.

“There is no risk to the spacecraft,” Mr. Arunan told The Hindu .

“In the last few days, we have taken several protective steps. We already manoeuvred the spacecraft’s orbit so that it will be safely hidden behind Mars when the comet approaches. This also ensures that MOM avoids the dust shower from the comet while watching it.

Even on Saturday night, the teams kept watch on the health of the spacecraft.

What will MOM observe? Mr. Arunan said MOM would cover the comet before and after the encounter. It would take pictures of the comet and take a peek at the composition of the gases in its tail, which include hydrogen and methane coming from the origin of the Solar System.

ISRO expects the earliest pictures to be processed by Monday afternoon while the science data will take longer to interpret.

Fellow orbiters

MOM gets to watch the comet in the elite company of fellow orbiters: NASA’s MAVEN, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey; European Space Agency’s Mars Express; and NASA rovers Opportunity and Curiosity that are scouring the Martian surface.

All these spacecraft are supported by the Jet Propulsion Lab. MOM will have an hour’s communication block after the encounter. In case of an emergency, the Indian ground stations are also on standby, he said.

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