Mars probe to study comet, two satellites

India’s Mars probe will not only keep its gaze focused on the red planet during its 10-month journey and six-month lstay in the martian orbit, it will also have a peek at a comet and one of the two martian satellites.

“The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will fly by the comet C/2013A1 when the probe is near the Mars orbit. The comet contains good amount of methane, which we hope to observe using our methane sensor,” M Annadurai, programme director of Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) Mars mission, told Deccan Herald.

A peek at the comet, days before it enters the martian atmosphere, will give scientists at Isro an opportunity to check if the most crucial scientific instrument on-board is working fine in the wake of an arduous and hazardous ten-month long journey. On Sunday, a 56 hour 30 minute countdown began for the Rs 450-crore Mars probe that will lift off from Sriharikota on Tuesday using a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket.

After a gruelling and risky journey for 300 days covering a distance of 400 million km, the spacecraft is expected to reach the Martian atmosphere by the third week of September, 2014.

Five on-board instruments will collect various data on the red planet, besides looking for signatures of methane in the martian atmosphere. As the sky becomes clearer near Mars, the methane sensor will observe the comet, which is believed to have been containing a “good amount” of methane.

In the six months of its life during which the probe will go around the Mars 20 times, scientists will also target one of the less known martian satellites, Phobos. It is the larger and closer of the two natural satellites of Mars. With a mean radius of 11.1 km, Phobos is 7.24 times more massive than the second moon Deimos.

“We hope to observe Phobos, but not the other one, Diemos, as it is too tiny,” V Adimurthy, senior adviser of interplanetary missions at Isro, told Deccan Herald.

Reaching the martian orbit, however, is a tough task and scientists have kept their fingers crossed. The 10-month journey is so risky that less than half the 50 spacecraft sent by other countries towards Mars have been able to complete it.

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