‘Indian orbiter still searching for methane on Mars’

Mysuru (Karnataka), Jan 4 (IANS) India’s maiden spacecraft to Mars is still groping around the red planet to locate methane gas in its atmosphere, a senior space scientist said on Monday.

“The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is yet to detect methane gas or find the exact source of it. I don’t have an update on how much of science we have been able to find out,” Indian space agency’s former director S.K. Shivakumar told IANS at the 103rd Indian Science Congress here.

Though India was the first country to succeed in entering the Martian orbit in its maiden attempt on September 24, 2014, barring stunning pictures of the red planet, its 475kg orbiter with five scientific instruments on board is yet to relay substantial data or information on Mars’ origin and evolution in the solar system.

“Being a technology person, I don’t know what is its (MOM) current status,” he said on the sidelines of a plenary session on ‘Space Science, Technology and Applications’, on second day of the five-day annual event at Manasagangotri campus of University of Mysore.

The Rs.450-crore mission was launched on November 5, 2013 from space port Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, about 80km northeast of Chennai, and reached the Martian orbit after a 10-month voyage through the inter-planetary space.

“As of Sunday evening and Monday morning, the orbiter is doing well, going around Mars, taking different set of pictures and whatever is required with its other payloads,” Shivakumar said.

The orbiter’s scientific instruments were built to study the red planet’s surface, its mineral composition and scan its atmosphere for methane gas in search of life-sustaining elements for at least six months.

Surviving a solar eclipse and a 15-day blackout in June last year, the spacecraft is still elliptically orbiting around Mars even 28 months after it entered the Martian orbit.

“As the orbiter still has 37kg of fuel, it will continue to orbit around Mars as long as it can. Though built for six months, it is still alive and going on and on,” Shivakumar added.

The spacecraft was under solar conjunction from June 8 when it went behind sun and away from the earth due to solar eclipse, which occurs once in 26 months over the red planet.

Though the orbiter’s communication system was disrupted by the sun’s corona (outer atmosphere) during the fortnight-long eclipse, it got activated and its scientific instruments resumed their activities after being on autonomous mode.

Orbiter takes 3.2 earth days or 72 hours, 51 minutes and 51 seconds to go around Mars once while orbiting at a distance of 500 km nearest and over 80,000 km at the farthest from its surface.

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