India’s Historic 1st Mission to Mars Celebrates 1 Year in Orbit at Red Planet

MOM celebrates 1 Year at Mars
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap. Credit: ISRO[/caption]

India’s historic first mission to Mars is now celebrating one year orbiting the Red Planet and may continue working for years to come. During year one the spacecraft was highly productive, achieving its goals of taking hordes of breathtaking images and gathering scientific measurements to study Mars atmosphere, surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy.

The Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planets influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24, 2014 following a ten month interplanetary journey from Earth.

The MOM orbiter was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency, which is the equivalent of NASA.

“Mars Orbiter spacecraft marks one year of its life around the Red Planet today [Sept. 24, IST],” said ISRO. It was primarily designed as a technology demonstrator but is also outfitted with significant science instruments.

Shri A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman ISRO (centre) releasing the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mars Atlas with Dr. Y V N Krishnamoorthy, Scientific Secretary ISRO (left); Dr. Annadurai M, Director ISRO Satellite Centre, Shri Tapan Misra, Director Space Application Centre ISRO, Shri Deviprasad Karnik, Director Public Relations Unit ISRO. Credit: ISRO
Shri A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman ISRO (centre) releasing the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mars Atlas with Dr. Y V N Krishnamoorthy, Scientific Secretary ISRO (left); Dr. Annadurai M, Director ISRO Satellite Centre, Shri Tapan Misra, Director Space Application Centre ISRO, Shri Deviprasad Karnik, Director Public Relations Unit ISRO. Credit: ISRO

The probe is equipped with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenous instruments to conduct meaningful science – including the tri color Mars Color Camera imager (MCC) and a methane gas sniffer (MSM) to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.

“After successfully completing one year of the mission life around Mars, now a large data set has been acquired by all five payloads of MOM,” ISRO stated.

To mark the one year anniversary ISRO released a new 120 page “Mars Atlas” of imagery and results, which can be downloaded from the ISRO website.

“The images from MCC have provided unique information about Mars at varying spatial resolutions. It has obtained Mars Global data showing clouds, dust in atmosphere and surface albedo variations, when acquired from apoapsis at around 72000 km.”

“On the other hand high resolution images acquired from periapsis show details of various morphological features on the surface of Mars. Some of these images have been showcased in this atlas. The images have been categorized depending upon the Martian surface and atmospheric processes.”

This view over the Ophir Chasma canyon on the Martian surface was taken by the Mars Colour Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).  Ophir Chasma is a canyon in the Coprates quadrangle located at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude. It is  part of the Valles Marineris canyon system.  Credit: ISRO
This view over the Ophir Chasma canyon on the Martian surface was taken by the Mars Colour Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Ophir Chasma is a canyon in the Coprates quadrangle located at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude. It is part of the Valles Marineris canyon system. Credit: ISRO

MOM was built in record time and for a budget of $73 million.

“The MOM spacecraft was designed, built and launched in record period of less than two years,” ISRO explained. “MOM carried five science instruments collecting data on surface geology, morphology, atmospheric processes, surface temperature and atmospheric escape process.”

Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

MOM’s Martian arrival was webcast worldwide with an elaborate ceremony that included India’s prime minister who beamed with pride in the team and the nation at that time.

“India has successfully reached Mars!” declared Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who watched the events unfold from mission control at ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore, on Sept. 24, 2014.

“History has been created today. We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists as well as all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion.”

MOM swoops around the Red Planet in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is about 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) is about 76,993.6 km, according to ISRO

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014.  Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: ISRO

Upon MOM’s arrival, India became the newest member of an elite club of only four entities who have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO

The Indian probe arrived just two days after NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, the first mission specifically targeted to study Mars tenuous upper atmosphere and the escape rates of atmospheric constituents.

The $73 million MOM mission was initially expected to last at least six months. In March 2015, ISRO extended the mission duration for another six months since its healthy, the five science instruments were operating fine and it had sufficient fuel reserves.

Indeed MOM has enough fuel to continue gather data and images for years to come if the instruments and spacecraft continue to function nominally.

“The Mars Orbiter Mission still has some 45 kg of fuel left which could, in theory, keep the mission going for at least 15 years,” ISRO told The Hindu.

“One cannot get a better bang for the buck! According to ISRO, for normal housekeeping operations and orbit maintenance only about two kg of fuel is necessary per year.”

Including MOM, Earth’s invasion fleet at the Red Planet numbers a total of seven spacecraft comprising five orbiters from NASA, ESA and ISRO as well as the sister pair of mobile surface rovers from NASA – Curiosity and Opportunity.

Spectacular 3D view of Arsia Mons, a huge volcano on Mars, taken by camera on India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit: ISRO
Spectacular 3D view of Arsia Mons, a huge volcano on Mars, taken by camera on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit: ISRO

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO
First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

Indian Mars Orbiter Shoots Spectacular New Images of Sheer Canyon and Curiosity’s Crater

India’s space agency has released a spectacular new batch of images taken by everyone’s favorite MOM – the Mars Orbiter Mission – the nation’s first probe ever dispatched to the Red Planet and which achieved orbit nearly a year ago.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has published a beautiful gallery of images featuring a steep and stunning Martian canyon and the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover, and more.

The lead image was taken over the Ophir Chasma canyon on the Martian surface by the Mars Colour Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission.

Ophir Chasma is a canyon in the Coprates quadrangle located at 4° south latitude and 72.5° west longitude. It is part of the Valles Marineris – the ‘Grand Canyon of Mars’ – and the largest known canyon in the Solar System.

The image was captured on July 19, 2015 from an altitude of 1857 kilometers (1154 miles). It has with a resolution of 96 meters.

The steep walled Ophir Chasma canyon contains many layers and the floors contain large deposits of layered materials, perhaps even sulfates.

Ophir Chasma is about 317 kilometers long and about 8 to 10 kilometers deep located near the center of Valles Marineris – see map below.

Valles Marineris stretches over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) across the Red Planet, is as much as 600 km wide and measures as much as 10 kilometers (6 mi) deep. It is nearly as wide as the United States.

Here’s an illuminating and magnificent 3D portrayal of Ophir Chasma created by Indian scientists that gives a sense of the canyons scale, sheer walls and cliffs and depth:

3D portrayals of Ophir Chasma terrain based on images taken by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission color camera on 19 July 2015 . Credit: ISRO
3D portrayals of Ophir Chasma terrain based on images taken by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission color camera on 19 July 2015 . Credit: ISRO

The newest images were snapped after the spacecraft exited the communications blackout encountered by all of Earth’s invasion fleet of Red Planet orbiters and rovers during the recent conjunction period when Mars was behind the sun during much of June.

See the prior image release from ISRO in my MOM story – here.

Here’s a wider view of Valles Marineris showing Ophir Chasma in a previously published MOM image from ISRO.

Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

ISRO also released a delightful new image of Gale Crater and the surrounding vicinity.

Gale Crater is the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover. MOM took the image from an altitude of 9004 kilometers.

Gale Crater - landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover - and vicinity as seen by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission from an altitude of 9004 km.  Gale crater is home to humongous Mount Sharp which rises 5.5 km from the crater floor and is easily visible in this photo.   Credit: ISRO
Gale Crater – landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover – and vicinity as seen by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission from an altitude of 9004 km. Gale crater is home to humongous Mount Sharp which rises 5.5 km from the crater floor and is easily visible in this photo. Credit: ISRO

Gale Crater is home to humongous Mount Sharp, a mountain that rises 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) from the crater floor and is easily visible in the photo from MOM. The crater is 154 kilometers (96 mi) wide.

Curiosity is currently exploring the foothills of Mount Sharp around the top of the image – which shows a rather different perspective from what we’ve seen from prior familiar orbital imagery snapped by several NASA and ESA orbiters.

The 1 ton rover recently celebrated the 3rd anniversary since its nailbiting touchdown inside Gale crater. And the new wider angle image from MOM gives a fabulous sense of exactly why a highly precise landing was essential – otherwise it would have been doomed.

Curiosity recently drilled into the “Buckskin” target at an outcrop at the foothills of Mount Sharp. See the mountain in our ground level mosaic from the crater floor. And its kind of neat to actually imagine Curiosity sitting there while perusing MOM’s photo.

Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts sample drilling at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right.   Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015.  Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Inset: MAHLI color camera up close image of full depth drill hole at “Buckskin” rock target on Sol 1060.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity extends robotic arm and conducts sample drilling at “Buckskin” rock target at bright toned “Lion” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars, seen at right. Gale Crater eroded rim seen in the distant background at left, in this composite multisol mosaic of navcam raw images taken to Sol 1059, July 30, 2015. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Inset: MAHLI color camera up close image of full depth drill hole at “Buckskin” rock target on Sol 1060. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

MOM’s goal is to study Mars atmosphere, surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenously built science instruments. It is also sniffing for methane, a potential marker for biological activity.

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planets influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24, 2014 following a ten month journey from Earth.

The Indian probe arrived just after NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, the first mission specifically targeted to study Mars tenuous upper atmosphere and the escape rates of atmospheric constituents.

MOM swoops around Mars in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to the planet (periapsis) is at about 421 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at about 76,000 km, according to ISRO.

It takes MOM about 3.2 Earth days or 72 hours to orbit the Red Planet.

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

The $73 million MOM mission was expected to last at least six months. In March, ISRO extended the mission duration for another six months since its healthy, the five science instruments are operating fine and it has sufficient fuel reserves.

Including MOM, Earth’s invasion fleet at the Red Planet numbers a total of seven spacecraft comprising five orbiters from NASA, ESA and ISRO as well as the sister pair of mobile surface rovers from NASA – Curiosity and Opportunity.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Location of Ophir Chasma canyon inside this annotated map of Valles Marineris created from the THEMIS camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Credit: NASA
Location of Ophir Chasma canyon inside this annotated map of Valles Marineris created from the THEMIS camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Credit: NASA
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap.   Credit: ISRO
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap. Credit: ISRO

Dazzling Gallery From India’s MOM Mars Orbiter Camera

Spectacular 3D view of Arsia Mons, a huge volcano on Mars, taken by camera on India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit: ISRO
Story updated with more details and imagery[/caption]

India’s first ever robotic explorer to the Red Planet, the Mars Orbiter Mission, more affectionately known as MOM, has captured an absolutely dazzling array of images of the fourth rock from the Sun.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency, has recently published a beautiful gallery of images featuring a variety of picturesque Martian canyons, volcanoes, craters, moons and more.

We’ve gathered a collection here of MOM’s newest imagery snapped by the probes Mars Color Camera (MCC) for the enjoyment of Martian fans worldwide.

The spectacular 3D view of the Arsia Mons volcano, shown above, was “created by draping the MCC image on topography of the region derived from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), one of five instruments on board NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft.

The Arsia Mons image was taken from Mars orbit on 1 April 2015 at a spatial resolution of 556 meters from an altitude of 10707 km. Volcanic deposits can be seen located at the flanks of the Mons, according to ISRO.

The view of Pital crater below was released in late May and taken on 23 April 2015. Pital is a 40 km wide impact crater located in the Ophir Planum region of Mars and the image shows a chain of small impact craters. It is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region, says an ISRO description. MCC took the image from an altitude of 808 km.

Pital crater is an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars, which is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region. This  image is taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 23-04-2015 at a spatial resolution of  ~42 m from an altitude of 808 km. Credit: ISRO
Pital crater is an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars, which is located in the eastern part of Valles Marineris region. This image is taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 23-04-2015 at a spatial resolution of ~42 m from an altitude of 808 km. Credit: ISRO

It is an odd shaped crater, neither circular nor elliptical in shape, possibly due to “regional fracture in the W-E trending fracture zone.”

A trio of images, including one in stunning 3D, shows various portions of Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the Solar System.

Three dimensional view of Valles Marineris center portion from India’s MOM Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Three dimensional view of Valles Marineris center portion from India’s MOM Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

Valles Marineris stretches over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) across the Red Planet , is as much as 600 km wide and measures as much as 7 kilometers (4 mi) deep.

Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Valles Marineris from India’s Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

For context here’s a previously taken global image of the red planet from MOM showing Valles Marinaris and Arsia Mons, which belongs to the Tharsis Bulge trio of shield volcanoes. They are both near the Martian equator.

Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap.   Credit: ISRO
Olympus Mons, Tharsis Bulge trio of volcanoes and Valles Marineris from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Note the clouds and south polar ice cap. Credit: ISRO

Valles Marineris is often called the “Grand Canyon of Mars.” It spans about as wide as the entire United States.

A gorgeous view of Phobos, the largest of Mars’ two tiny moons, silhouetted against the surface is shown below.

Phobos, one of the two natural satellites of Mars silhouetted against the Martian surface.  Credit: ISRO
Phobos, one of the two natural satellites of Mars silhouetted against the Martian surface. Credit: ISRO

MOM’s goal is to study Mars atmosphere, surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenously built science instruments. It is also sniffing for methane, a potential marker for biological activity.

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planets influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24, 2014 following a ten month journey from Earth.
MOM swoops around Mars in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to the planet (periapsis) is at about 421 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at about 76,000 km, according to ISRO.

It takes MOM about 3.2 Earth days or 72 hours to orbit the Red Planet.

Higher resolution view of a portion of Valles Marineris canyon from India’s MOM Mars Mission.   Credit: ISRO
Higher resolution view of a portion of Valles Marineris canyon from India’s MOM Mars Mission. Credit: ISRO

MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.

The $73 million MOM mission was expected to last at least six months. In March, ISRO extended the mission duration for another six months since its healthy, the five science instruments are operating fine and it has sufficient fuel reserves.

And with a communications blackout between Mars and Earth imminent as a result of natures solar conjunction, it’s the perfect time to catch up on all things Martian.

Solar conjunctions occur periodically between Mars and Earth about every 26 months, when the two planets line up basically in a straight line geometry with the sun in between as the two planets travel in their sun-centered orbits.

Since Mars will be located behind the Sun for most of June, communications with all the Terran spacecraft at the planet is diminished to nonexistent.

“MOM faces a communication outage during June 8-25,” according to The Hindu.

Normal science operations resume thereafter.

“Fuel on the spacecraft is not an issue,” ISRO Satellite Centre Director M. Annadurai told The Hindu.

Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 25-02-2015 at a spatial resolution of 166m from an altitude of 3192km.  Tyrrhenus Mons is an ancient martian volcano and image shows its timeworn gullies and wind streaks.  Credit: ISRO
Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Color Camera (MCC) on 25-02-2015 at a spatial resolution of 166m from an altitude of 3192km. Tyrrhenus Mons is an ancient martian volcano and image shows its timeworn gullies and wind streaks. Credit: ISRO

Including MOM, Earth’s invasion fleet at the Red Planet numbers a total of seven spacecraft comprising five orbiters from NASA, ESA and ISRO as well as the sister pair of mobile surface rovers from NASA – Curiosity and Opportunity.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Universe Today’s Top 10 Space Stories of 2014

It seems a lot of the space stories of this year involve spacecraft making journeys: bouncing across a comet, or making their way to Mars. Private companies also figure prominently, both in terms of successes and prominent failures.

These are Universe Today’s picks for the top space stories of the year. Disagree? Think we forgot something? Let us know in the comments.

10. End of Venus Express

Artist's impression of Venus Express performing aerobreaking maneuvers in the planet's atmosphere in June and July 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau
Artist’s impression of Venus Express performing aerobreaking maneuvers in the planet’s atmosphere in June and July 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

This month saw the end of Venus Express’ eight-year mission at the planet, which happened after the spacecraft made a daring plunge into part of the atmosphere to learn more about its properties. The spacecraft survived the aerobraking maneuvers, but ran out of fuel after a few engine burns to raise it higher. Soon it will plunge into the atmosphere for good. But it was a productive mission overall, with discoveries ranging from a slowing rotation to mysterious “glories”.

9. Continued discoveries by Curiosity and Opportunity

1 Martian Year on Mars!  Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014.    Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
1 Martian Year on Mars! Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Methane? Organics? Water? Mars appears to have had these substances in abundance over its history. Continued work from the Curiosity rover — passing its second Earth year on Mars — found methane fluctuating in Gale Crater, and the first confirmed discovery of organics on the Martian surface. Opportunity is almost 11 years into its mission and battling memory problems, but the rover is still on the move (passing 41 kilometers) to an area that could be full of clay.

8. Siding Spring at Mars and the level of study of the comet by other missions at Mars

Comet Siding Spring near Mars in a composite image by the Hubble Space Telescope, capturing their positions between Oct. 18 8:06 a.m. EDT (12:06 p.m. UTC) and Oct. 19 11:17 p.m. EDT (Oct. 20, 3:17 a.m. UTC). Credit: NASA, ESA, PSI, JHU/APL, STScI/AURA
Comet Siding Spring near Mars in a composite image by the Hubble Space Telescope, capturing their positions between Oct. 18 8:06 a.m. EDT (12:06 p.m. UTC) and Oct. 19 11:17 p.m. EDT (Oct. 20, 3:17 a.m. UTC). Credit: NASA, ESA, PSI, JHU/APL, STScI/AURA

We had a rare opportunity to watch a comet make a grazing pass by Mars, not close enough to pose significant danger to spacecraft, but definitely close enough to affect its atmosphere! Siding Spring caught everyone’s attention throughout the year, and did not disappoint. The numerous spacecraft at the Red Planet caught glimpses, including from the surface and from orbit. It likely created a meteor shower and could alter the Martian atmosphere forever.

7. Kepler K2

Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)
Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

The Kepler space telescope lost the second of its four pointing devices last year, requiring a major rethink for the veteran planet hunter. The solution was a new mission called K2 that uses the pressure of the Sun to maintain the spacecraft’s direction, although it has to flip every 83 days or so to a new location to avoid the star’s glare. It’s not as precise as before, but with the mission approved we now know for sure K2 can locate exoplanets. The first confirmed one is a super-Earth.

6. MAVEN at Mars

An artist's conception of MAVEN orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center
An artist’s conception of MAVEN orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center

Where did the Martian atmosphere go? Why was it so thick in the past, allowing water to flow on the surface, and so thin right now? The prevailing theory is that the Sun’s pressure on the Martian atmosphere pushed lighter isotopes (such as that of hydrogen) away from the planet, leaving heavier isotopes behind. NASA is now investigating this in more detail with MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), which arrived at the planet this fall.

5. India’s MOM

Artist's impression of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit ISRO
Artist’s impression of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit ISRO

India made history this year as only the third entity to successfully reach the Red Planet (after the United States and Europe). While updates from the Mars Orbiter Mission have been slow in recent weeks, we know for sure that it observed Siding Spring at Mars and it has been diligently taking pictures of the Red Planet, such as this one of the Solar System’s largest volcano and a huge canyon on Mars.

4. Accidents by Virgin and Orbital

NTSB investigators are seen making their initial inspection of debris from the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. The debris field stresses over a fiver mile range in the Mojave desert. (Credit: Getty Images)
NTSB investigators are seen making their initial inspection of debris from the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. The debris field stresses over a fiver mile range in the Mojave desert. (Credit: Getty Images)

In one sobering week in October, the dangers of space travel were again made clear after incidents affected Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences. Virgin lost a pilot and seriously injured another when something went seriously awry during a flight test. Investigators have so far determined that the re-entry system turned on prematurely, but more details are being determined. Orbital meanwhile suffered the catastrophic loss of one of its Antares rockets, perhaps due to Soviet-era-designed engines, but the company is looking at other ways to fulfill its NASA contractual obligations to send cargo to the International Space Station.

3. SpaceX rocket landing attempts

The Falcon 9 rocket with landing legs in SpaceX’s hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fl, preparing to launch Dragon to the space station this Sunday March 30.  Credit: SpaceX
The Falcon 9 rocket with landing legs in SpaceX’s hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fl, preparing to launch Dragon to the space station this Sunday March 30. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is attempting a daunting technological feat, which is bringing back its rocket first stages for re-use. The company is hoping that this will cut down on the costs of launch in the long term, but this technological innovation will take some time. The Falcon 9 rocket stage that made it back to the ocean in July was deemed a success, although the force of the landing broke it apart. Next, SpaceX is trying to place its rocket on an ocean platform.

2. Orion flight

Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV
Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV

NASA’s spacecraft for deep space exploration (Orion) successfully finished its first major uncrewed test this month, when it rode into orbit, made a high-speed re-entry and successfully splashed down in the ocean. But it’s going to be a while before Orion flies again, likely in 2017 or even 2018. NASA hopes to put a crew on this spacecraft type in the 2020s, potentially for trips to the Moon, an asteroid or (more distantly) Mars.

1. Rosetta

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth's crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)
New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth’s crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

It’s been an exciting year for the Rosetta mission. First it woke up from a lengthy hibernation, then it discovered that Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko looks a bit like a rubber duckie, and then it got up close and released the Philae lander. The soft touchdown did not go as planned, to say the least, as the spacecraft bounced for two hours and then came to rest in a spot without a lot of sunlight. While Philae hibernates and controllers hope it wakes up again in a few months, however, science results are already showing intriguing things. For example, water delivered to Earth likely came mostly from other sources than comets.

‘Meteoric Smoke’: Comet Siding Spring Could Alter Mars Chemistry Permanently

Feeling lucky? Events such as the Comet Siding Spring approach by Mars in October only happen about once every eight million years, according to NASA.

And after we were treated to spectacular views from the agency’s spacecraft (see Curiosity and Opportunity and MAVEN, for example), we now have fresh pictures this month from an Indian mission. Also, NASA has released science results suggesting that the chemistry of Mars’ atmosphere could be changed forever from the close encounter.

“The image in the center shows a streak … radiating out of the comet’s nucleus (out of frame), possibly indicating the jet from [the] comet’s nucleus,” the Indian Science Research Organisation wrote of the above image sequence on its Facebook mission page.

“Usually jets represent outgassing activity from [the] vents of the comet-nucleus, releasing dust and ice crystals. The outgassing activity gradually increases as the comet moves closer to the Sun.”

Artist view of the comet passing closest to Mars this Sunday. At the time, the Mars orbiters from the U.S., Europe and India will be huddled on the opposite side of the planet to avoid possible impacts from comet dust. Credit: NASA
Artist view of the comet passing closest to Mars this Sunday. At the time, the Mars orbiters from the U.S., Europe and India will be huddled on the opposite side of the planet to avoid possible impacts from comet dust. Credit: NASA

The comet’s dust likely produced a meteor shower or meteor storm when particles from it crashed into the upper atmosphere, which “literally changed the chemistry,” added Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a recent discussion highlighted on an agency blog.

The agency says the dust created vaporized metals, which will eventually transform to dust or “meteoric smoke.” MAVEN (which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) will be monitoring the long-term effects. Possible results include high-altitude clouds or at the most extreme, maybe permanently altering what the chemistry of the atmosphere is. Not a bad thing for a mission to study shortly after it arrived at Mars.

You can view more science results from NASA’s studies of Siding Spring in this recent Universe Today story from Bob King, which talks in more detail about the meteor shower, new layers in the Mars atmosphere and the omnipresent dust.

Stunning View of Solar System’s Largest Volcano and Valles Marineris Revealed by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has delivered another sweet treat – a stunning view of our Solar System’s largest volcano and the largest canyon.

Just days ago, MOM captured a new global image of the Red Planet dominated by Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris – which is the largest known volcano and the largest known canyon in the Solar System, respectively.

Situated right in between lies a vast volcanic plateau holding a trio of huge volcanoes comprising the Tharsis Bulge: Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Ascraeus Mons. All four volcanoes are shield volcanoes.

To give an idea of its enormity, Olympus Mons stands about three times taller than Mount Everest and is about the size of Arizona.

Olympus Mons from Mars orbit compared to the state of Arizona. Credit: NASA
Olympus Mons from Mars orbit compared to the state of Arizona. Credit: NASA

Olympus Mons is located in Mars’ western hemisphere and measures 624 kilometers (374 miles) in diameter, 25 km (16 mi) high, and is rimmed by a 6 km (4 mi) high scarp.

Valles Marineris is often called the “Grand Canyon of Mars.” It spans about as wide as the entire United States.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency which designed and developed the orbiter released the image on Oct. 17, barely two days ahead of the planet’s and spacecrafts’ extremely close encounter with comet Siding Spring.

By the way, a relieved ISRO tweeted MOM’s survival of her close shave with the once-in-a-lifetime cometary passage with gusto, soon after the swingby:

“Phew! Experience of a lifetime. Watched the #MarsComet #SidingSpring whizzing past the planet. I’m in my orbit, safe and sound.”

The new global image was taken by the tri-color camera as MOM swooped around the Red Planet in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km, according to ISRO.

To date ISRO has released four global images of the Red Planet, including a 3-D view, reported here.

Olympus Mons, the Tharsis Bulge, and Valles Marineris are near the equator.

Valles Marineris stretches over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) across the Red Planet, is as much as 600 km wide, and measures as much as 7 kilometers (4 mi) deep.

Here’s a comparison view of the region taken by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter in the 1970s.

Global Mosaic of Mars Centered on Valles Marineris
Global Mosaic of Mars Centered on Valles Marineris from NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter. Credit: NASA

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planet’s influence and successfully arrived at the Red Planet only one month ago after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24 following a ten month journey.

The $73 million MOM mission is expected to last at least six months.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21 and could last 10 years or more.

With MOM’s arrival, India became the newest member of an elite club of only four entities that have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – following the Soviet Union, the United States, and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014.  Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74,500 km on Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: ISRO

Glorious Global 3-D Mars from ISRO’s MOM and ESA’s Rosetta

Here’s another breathtakingly glorious view from India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – her first global 3-D portrait of her new home careening around the Red Planet.

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planet’s influence and just successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24 following a ten month journey.

This newly released 3-D view from MOM expands upon the initial 2-D global color view of Mars released by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency. See below and detailed in my earlier story – here.

The 3-D image was generated from multiple pictures acquired by MOM’s on-board Mars Color Camera on Sept 28, 2014, from the very high altitude of approximately 74,500 kilometers as the spacecraft orbits Mars.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014.  Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74,500 km on Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: ISRO

The images were taken by the tri-color camera as MOM swooped around the Red Planet in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km, according to ISRO.

Therefore, the 3-D Red Planet portrait was captured nearly at apoapsis. And being three dimensional, it gives a stereo sense of the huge dust storm swirling over a large swath of the planet’s Northern Hemisphere set against the blackness of space.

Below right is the southern polar ice cap. To see the 3-D effect, whip out your handy pair of left-eye red, right-eye blue color anaglyph glasses.

And while we’re on the subject of spacely 3-D, it’s worth noting that another of humanity’s ground breaking probes currently making news – ESA’s comet hunting Rosetta probe – likewise snapped a glorious 3-D view of Mars way back in 2007, during the brief, but critical, gravity assist slingshot maneuver that flung Rosetta along her vast 10 year path through interplanetary space.

So by way of comparison let’s take a trip down memory lane and be sure to look back at Rosetta’s global 3-D Martian views (below) taken by the high resolution OSIRIS camera on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240,000 kilometers.

Mars 3-D anaglyph (black & white) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240 000 km.  Image resolution is about 5 km.  Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
Mars 3-D anaglyph (black & white) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240,000 km. Image resolution is about 5 km. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

The Rosetta team created both color and black & white 3-D views of Mars.

Mars 3-D anaglyph (color) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240 000 km.  Image resolution is about 5 km.  Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
Mars 3-D anaglyph (color) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240,000 km. Image resolution is about 5 km. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

And be sure to check out Rosetta’s 2-D true color view showing a different swatch of the Red Planet compared to MOM, along with a more expansive view of the southern polar ice cap.

The first true-colour image of Mars from ESA’s Rosetta generated using the OSIRIS orange (red), green and blue colour filters. The image was acquired on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240 000 km; image resolution is about 5 km/pixel. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
The first true-color image of Mars from ESA’s Rosetta generated using the OSIRIS orange (red), green and blue color filters. The image was acquired on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240,000 km; image resolution is about 5 km/pixel. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

The $73 million MOM mission is expected to last at least six months.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21 and could last 10 years or more.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ISRO and NASA Ink Deal to Collaborate on Red Planet and Home Planet Science Missions

ISRO and NASA have inked a deal to collaborate on future missions to jointly explore the Red Planet and our Home Planet hot on the heels of ISRO’s wildly successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), India’s first ever interplanetary voyager to explore Mars.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), signed an agreement to collaborate on future science missions to explore Mars as well as to build and launch a joint NASA-ISRO mission to observe Earth.

The leaders of NASA and ISRO met in Toronto, Canada on Tuesday, Sept. 30 and “signed two documents to launch a NASA-ISRO satellite mission to observe Earth and establish a pathway for future joint missions to explore Mars,” according to a NASA statement.

Bolden and Rao met at the International Astronautical Congress underway in Toronto.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO

They signed one agreement defining each agency’s responsibilities for the joint NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission, targeted to launch in 2020. NISAR will make global measurements of the causes and consequences of land surface changes.

The second agreement “establishes a NASA-ISRO Mars Working Group to investigate enhanced cooperation between the two countries in Mars exploration.”

“The signing of these two documents reflects the strong commitment NASA and ISRO have to advancing science and improving life on Earth,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a NASA statement.

“This partnership will yield tangible benefits to both our countries and the world.”

NISAR will be the first Earth observing mission to be equipped two different synthetic aperture radar (SAR) frequencies (L-band and S-band) – one each from NASA and ISRO.

NASA will also provide “the high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid state recorder, and a payload data subsystem.”

ISRO will provide the spacecraft bus and launch vehicle.

The radars will be able to measure subtle changes in Earth’s surface of less than a centimeter across stemming from the flow of glaciers and ice sheets as well as earthquakes and volcanoes.

Regarding Mars, the first subject the joint working group will tackle will be to coordinate observations from each nation’s recently arrived Mars orbiters – ISRO’s MOM and NASA’s MAVEN. They will also examine areas of future collaboration on surface rovers and orbiters.

“NASA and Indian scientists have a long history of collaboration in space science,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA Associate Administrator for Science.

“These new agreements between NASA and ISRO in Earth science and Mars exploration will significantly strengthen our ties and the science that we will be able to produce as a result.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and launched on Nov. 18, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars and observing Comet Siding Spring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and launched on Nov. 18, 2014, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars and observing Comet Siding Spring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

MOM Eyes the Limb of Mars after History Creating Arrival

India’s maiden interplanetary voyager, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has transmitted a breathtaking new image eyeing the limb of Mars and its atmosphere against the blackness of space.

The beautiful Martian image is only MOM’s second since successfully braking into orbit during the ‘history creating’ insertion maneuver days ago on Sept. 23/24.

The MOM orbiter was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency, which released the image on Sept 25, about a day after MOM arrived.

The limb image was taken using MOM’s Mars Color Camera (MCC) from an altitude of 8449 kilometers and shows more of an ‘Orange Planet’ rather than a ‘Red Planet.’

“A shot of Martian atmosphere. I’m getting better at it. No pressure,” tweeted ISRO at MOM’s newly established twitter account after entering orbit.

The image has a spatial resolution of 439 meters and is centered around Lat: 20.01N and Lon:31.54E.

MOM’s goal is to study Mars atmosphere , surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenously built science instruments. It will also sniff for methane, a potential marker for biological activity.

“The view is nice up here,” ISRO tweeted.

MOM’s first image taken shortly after orbital arrival showed a heavily cratered region of the Red Planet taken by the MCC tri-color camera from a slightly lower altitude of 7300 kilometers with a spatial resolution of 376 meters.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures its first image of Mars from a height of 7300 km. Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures its first image of Mars from a height of 7300 km. Credit: ISRO

Following MOM’s successful Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI) maneuver, India became the newest member of an elite club of only four entities who have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Read my complete MOM meets Mars arrival story – here.

MOM is now circling Mars in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km. The inclination of orbit with respect to the equatorial plane of Mars is 150 degree, as intended, ISRO reports.

The $73 million mission is expected to last at least six months.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21 and could last 10 years or more.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer