Science—like literature and the arts—helps nations cooperate together, even when they’re in conflict politically. The USA and Russia are in conflict over the Ukraine and Syria, yet both nations still cooperate when it comes to the International Space Station. With that in mind, it’s great to see other nations—in this case India—taking on a greater role in space exploration and sharing their scientific results.
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) probe has been in orbit around Mars since September 2014, after being launched in November 2013. Though the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has released plenty of pictures of the surface of Mars, they haven’t released any scientific data. Until now.
In September 2015, MOM’s orbit was adjusted to bring it to within 260 km of Mars’ surface, significantly closer to the surface than the usual 400 km altitude. This manoeuver allowed one of MOM’s six instruments, the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer (MENCA), to measure the atmospheric composition at different altitudes. The sensor measured carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon monoxide to see how they were distributed at different altitudes.
MOM’s activity at Mars is important for a couple of reasons. Its results confirm the results of other probes that have studied Mars’ atmosphere. And confirmation is an important part of science. But there’s another reason why MOM is important, and this centres around the search for evidence of life on the Red Planet.
Methane is considered a marker for the presence of life. It’s not an absolute indicator that life is or was present, but it’s a good hint. One of MOM’s sensors is the Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM.) Methane has been detected in Mars’ atmosphere before, but these could have been spikes, and not a strong indicator of living processes. If MSM provides stronger data indicating a consistent methane presence, that would be very interesting.
Releasing these results is also vindication for ISRO. In 2008, ISRO released data from their lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, showing the presence of water on the Moon. Those results, which were gathered with an instrument called Chandra’s Altitudinal Composition Explorer (CHACE) were rejected by several scientific publications, on the grounds that the results were contaminated. Only when they were confirmed by another of Chandrayaan-1’s instruments—the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3)—were the results accepted.
But MOM’s MENCA instrument is based on the CHACE instrument aboard Chandrayaan-1, so ISRO feels that MENCA’s success in the atmosphere at Mars vindicates CHACE’s results on the Moon. And rightly so.
You can read a blog post by Syed Maqbool Ahmed at the Planetary Society, where he talks about the success of MOM’s MENCA, and how it vindicates ISRO’s earlier results with CHACE that showed the presence of water on the Moon.
MOM is India’s first interplanetary mission, and is expected to last until its fuel runs out, which could take many years. India is the first Asian nation to make it to another planet, and the first of any nation to make it to Mars on their first attempt. Not bad for a mission that was initially considered to be only a technology demonstration mission.