India has started the clock on its most ambitious space project to date. On Sunday at 6:08 IST, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) began the countdown for its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). If all goes to schedule, the unmanned probe will lift off on Tuesday from the First Launch Pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SHAR), on the island of Sriharikota at 2:38 pm IST atop a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25), marking the point where India hopes to launch itself into the space-faring big leagues.
On Sunday, the fourth stage of the PSLV was loaded with monomethyl hydrazine propellant and mixed oxides of nitrogen, followed on Monday morning with the beginnings of fueling the second stage. Once launched, the MOM probe will act as a technology demonstrator to show that India can design, build, launch, and execute an interplanetary exploration mission. In this case, a mission to Mars, which will involve a 300-day passage followed by studies lasting six to ten months from the spacecraft's elliptical orbit.
For studying the Red Planet, MOM is equipped with 15 kg (33 lb) of instruments. These include a Lyman-Alpha Photometer (LAP), which is an absorption cell photometer that measures the relative abundance of deuterium and hydrogen in the Martian upper atmosphere and will be used to determine the rate that Mars loses water to space. There is also a Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM), which measures methane in the Martian atmosphere in parts per billion – an experiment that has drawn considerable interest after NASA’s Curiosity rover failed to detect any trace of the gas.
The other three instruments are the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer (MENCA), which is a quadrupole mass analyzer to study the composition of the upper atmosphere, a Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS) that will map the temperature of the Martian surface, and the Mars Colour Camera (MCC) that will be used to study the surface features and composition of Mars and its moons Phobos and Deimos.
In an interview with the BBC, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishna defended the launch of a Mars mission from his country by stating that the Indian space program only consumes 0.34 percent of Indian central government expenditure, but since its inception half a century ago has produced tangible and intangible benefits that have surpassed the monetary investment.
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