GOLDEN, Colo. — India’s first spacecraft bound for Mars is counting down toward a late-October launch, a mission that — if successful — could make the country’s space agency one of the elite few space powers to have explored the red planet.

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Mangalyaan spacecraft, also known as the Mars Orbiter Mission probe, has arrived at the country’s Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota to be put atop an already stacked Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The spacecraft is designed to photograph the martian surface from orbit and search for signs of methane in the planet’s atmosphere.

India’s Mars orbiter launch window opens Oct. 28 and closes Nov. 19, with arrival at the red planet targeted for September 2014. If all goes well, India would become the fourth country (or group of countries) to reach Mars, after the former Soviet Union, the United States and Europe.

Mangalyaan’s Instruments

Mangalyaan will carry five payloads into Mars orbit:

  • Lyman Alpha Photometer: Measures the deuterium to hydrogen abundance ratio to assess the loss process of water from the planet.
  • Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer: Provides a map of the composition and mineralogy of the martian surface, operating day and night.
  • Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer: Studies the neutral composition of the martian upper atmosphere.
  • Mars Color Camera: Images the topography of the martian surface, keeping an orbiting eye on dynamic events and weather of Mars, and will also be used for snapping pictures of the moons Phobos and Deimos.
  • Methane Sensor for Mars: Measures the martian atmosphere on the lookout for methane at several parts per billion levels and maps its sources. Data are acquired only over an illuminated scene as the sensor measures reflected solar radiation.

Other countries have tried to reach Mars and failed. Japan’s Nozomi Mars spacecraft failed in its bid to orbit the planet in 1999, while China’s Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter was destroyed when its carrier spacecraft — Russia’s Phobos-Grunt — failed to leave Earth orbit in 2011.

As India’s first Mars mission, the Mangalyaan probe’s major objectives are both technological and scientific.

First, the Mars orbiter showcases the country’s spacecraft-building and operations acumen. Second, the probe carries a high-tech suite of sensors to explore the planet’s surface features, morphology, mineralogy and atmosphere.

Mangalyaan is expected to spend between six and 10 months orbiting Mars. The spacecraft structure and propulsion hardware configurations are similar to Chandrayaan-1, India’s successful first robotic lunar probe that operated from 2008 to 2009, with specific improvements and upgrades needed for a Mars specific mission, according to ISRO.

The martian hunt for methane

Recent missions to Mars have provided ample direct evidence on Mars for hydrated minerals on the surface, and of water at subsurface regions, said Jitendra Nath Goswami, director of ISRO’s Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad.

The possible presence of methane has been proposed, but only based on limited observations, Goswami said. However, mysteries remain, including whether such methane emissions are sporadic or localized on Mars, and what their actual sources are, Goswami explained in a co-authored paper on the Indian Mars mission presented this year at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

Whether or not the Mars atmosphere contains traces of methane has been pursued for many years. The reason is that sniffing out the methane could be a prospective sign of microbial life. However, it also can be produced without biology via geological processes, or by ultraviolet degradation of organic material delivered by the fall of meteorites, or even an inoculation of interplanetary dust particles.

The hunt for methane on Mars took a hit in September when scientists announced that observations from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover indicated that the martian environment lacks the much-sought gas. This was deemed a surprise to researchers because previous data reported by U.S. and international scientists indicated positive detections.

Mars arrivals of 2014

India’s Mangalyaan spacecraft will not be the only newcomer at the red planet in 2014. In addition to the Indian probe, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, or Maven, is also expected to begin its own mission in orbit around the planet next year.

NASA plans to launch Maven Nov. 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The probe should arrive in Mars orbit in September 2014, like India’s Mangalyaan.

“As I understand it, they [India] have a broad range of science instruments, and some of them will have synergy with Maven science,” said Bruce Jakosky, Maven’s lead scientist based at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “We’ve had an initial discussion with them of potential collaboration, but have not made any detailed plans yet for coordination.”

‘MOMs’ of the world unite

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission —MOM for short — “fits well within the scientific strategy of a global campaign to understand Mars as a system, with geology, climate and, ultimately, life as goals,” said James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a member of Curiosity’s imaging science team.

In Garvin’s view, “Mars will always require a diversified set of vantage points and sensor systems,” and India’s Mangalyaan mission could contribute to some of the important questions about Mars that, so far, have yet to be addressed at the surface, or from Martian orbit and Earth-based observations.

“I am excited by India’s MOM mission to Mars and suspect that its methane sensor will provide very interesting new observations that can be tied to those from Curiosity, Europe’s ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas orbiter, and to those from Earth-based systems,” Garvin said.

“Mars is waiting,” he said, “and we should not let her down!”

Garvin added that over his 30-year career as a NASA Mars scientist, and while in graduate school at Brown University, he has never witnessed a time when researchers were not surprised by what Mars had to offer.

“And after all, who could not root for ‘MOM?’” Garvin said. “I always root for the moms of the world.”

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...