The media is full of the rich colour photos taken by the rovers on Mars and the fascinating pictures of dunes and ice formations from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Three nations, and one group of nations, have managed to get stuff to Mars successfully, Russia (when it was the Soviet Union), USA, the European Space Agency and India. The first three all have robust space programmes, stretching back many years, their own powerful rockets and a lot of resources. We thought it would be useful to have a closer look at the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), launched by India in 2013, to see what the mission is doing and what it has contributed to our understanding of Mars.
MOM was designed and built by the Indian Space Research Organsation (ISRO) and it was the country’s first interplanetary mission. The aim was to put the orbiter into an elliptical orbit around Mars so it could carry out observations of the Martian surface and conduct some limited experiments on the atmosphere.
There are five instruments on board the MOM including the Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP), the Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM), the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA), the Mars Colour Camera (MCC) and the Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS).
The role of the LAP is to help scientists understand the water loss processes happening in the upper atmosphere of the planet. The instrument measures the abundance of deuterium and hydrogen. The MSM instrument is designed to measure methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane is important as it can be an indicator of biological processes occurring on the planet. The MENCA is a quadruple mass spectrometer to measure the composition of the atmosphere. The MCC is designed to take visual images of the surface of Mars to examine ground features and monitor weather as well as for having a look at Mars’ two small moons. The final instrument, the TIS is used for examining the characteristics of the ground due to the differences in thermal properties of different types of soil and rock.
The 1337kg payload was supposed to be launched on Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) but at the time India was having problems with this rocket so the payload was moved to the smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). This meant that the orbiter would be launched at a lower altitude and would have to perform some complex manoeuvring to get it into a position to head to Mars. The launch was successful and MOM started its journey on 5 November 2013 heading off on it’s 300 day trip to the red planet and reaching its destination on 24 September 2014.
The mission has returned some great images of Mars and some full disk pictures which are normally only taken by other spacecraft just before they arrive in orbit, the featured image is one of these pictures from ISRO. The cost of the mission was roughly $73million, making it significantly cheaper than other Mars missions, though the complexity of the payload was also less than comparable missions such as MAVEN from NASA, which was launched at a similar time. The mission was more a technology demonstrator to allow ISRO to go through all of the aspects of interplanetary mission development to open the door for further missions.