NASA, India Eye Collaborative Studies as Probes Race to Mars

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CAPE CANAVEFRAL, Fla. — India’s first Mars probe faced a crucial 22-minute engine burn Nov. 30 to boost its orbit, escape Earth’s gravitational hold and join NASA’s recently launched MAVEN spacecraft on a 10-month journey to Mars.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, also called Mangalyaan, launched Nov. 5 and is due to arrive at Mars Sept. 24, two days after NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), which blasted off aboard an Atlas 5 rocket Nov. 18.

“We’re going to be cruising past them, so to speak, and we’ll actually get there two days before they get there. So it’s kind of a neat race. We wish them all the best,” said David Mitchell, NASA MAVEN project manager. “Down the road I think scientists will be collaborating on what they find there between the two missions,” he added.

“NASA had planned their mission much ahead of us and so collaborative experiments could not be planned,” Jitendra Nath Goswami, chief of the Mangalyaan orbiter’s science experiments and director of ISRO’s Physical Research Laboratory, told SpaceNews. “But whenever both our instruments look at the same thing over Mars we can compare notes.” 

And in some instances, Mangalyaan’s data can complement MAVEN’s, he said. “For instance, they will be studying the Mars atmosphere at around 150-200 kilometers whereas Mangalyaan will gather data from 450 to 6,000 kilometers.”

Goswami said formal discussions on collaboration have to wait. “We have to reach there first.”

While India’s orbiter primarily serves as a testbed for deep-space exploration technologies, it includes five science instruments to study physical features on the martian surface and make limited measurements of its thin atmosphere, including a search for methane, a gas that on Earth is strongly associated with life.

During the past decade, teams of scientists, using Mars orbiters and telescopes on Earth, have reported plumes of methane on Mars. The gas breaks down in sunlight, so its presence in the martian atmosphere indicated that either biological activity or some sort of fairly recent geologic event was responsible for its release. 

Ongoing studies by NASA’s Curiosity rover, however, have found only trace amounts of methane, a puzzling finding since the gas should last for about 200 years under martian photochemistry. 

NASA’s MAVEN science teams likewise will look at Mars’ atmosphere, but are interested in a bigger picture view. They want to know how much of the planet’s atmosphere is escaping into space, data that will be used to create computer models to roll back the hands of time to the days when Mars had a thicker, denser atmosphere and the ability to support liquid surface water. 

“The atmosphere must have been thicker for the planet to be warmer and wetter. The question is where did all that carbon dioxide and the water go?” said MAVEN lead scientist Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“We see a lot of evidence for liquid water having flowed over the surface in ancient times. We see river channels, features that look like there have been lakes inside of impact craters. We see minerals that form only in the presence of liquid water,” Jakosky said. “All of these suggest that there has been water on the planet early in time and today of course we see a cold, dry, desert-like planet.”

MAVEN will inventory solar and cosmic rays that hit Mars, as well as look at how the radiation peels away gases in the atmosphere. 

India’s Mars probe “has a couple of instruments that make relevant measurements to what we’re doing and vice-versa,” Jakosky said. “We’ve agreed that after we’re both in orbit and taking data we’ll figure what coordination we need,” including possible joint observations, he said.

Narendra Bhandari, an ISRO scientist associated with the Mangalyaan’s science experiments, said since the U.S. and India developed their missions independently, there are no formal plans for collaborative experiments .“We are, however, open to discussion,” Bhandari said. “It is a good thing we will be looking at the same problem. If we find some thing, they can confirm and we can do the same for them.”   

The two new spacecraft will join five other robotic probes already circling around or operating on Mars, including NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance and Odyssey orbiters and Europe’s Mars Express orbiter. 

“We’ve gone beyond the ability to look at one part of the planet and understand everything there is to know about it,” Jakosky said.

“The atmosphere connects to the upper atmosphere and to the solar wind and loss to space. It connects to the surface, the polar caps, the deep interior, so we need to understand all parts of it and that requires comparing observations from different spacecraft,” he said. 

 

SpaceNews correspondent K.S. Jayaraman contributed from Bangalore, India.