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Indian sensor to sniff out methane in Mars orbit
Monday November 4, 2013 7:45 PM, Fakir Balaji, IANS

India's tryst with Mars could lead to finding methane on the Red Planet for the first time by a sensor onboard the spacecraft being launched Tuesday from Sriharikota spaceport, 80 km northeast of Chennai.

Of the five scientific instruments, the 1.3-tonne Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will carry to the Red Planet, Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) has been built to measure the natural gas in the Martian atmosphere with PPB (particles per billion) accuracy and map its sources.

"As methane is an indicator of past life on Mars, the sensor will look for its presence in the Martian orbit. If available, we should know its source in terms of biology and geology. The thermal infrared sensor will find out if the gas is from geological origin," a top space official told IANS here.

Claiming that the sensor was being used for the first time to detect methane on Mars, state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K. Radhakrishnan said the Curiosity instrument of NASA was designed to find if methane was present at a specific spot on its surface, whereas the Orbiter's sensor would measure it over the entire planet.

"Data is acquired only over the illuminated scene as the sensor measures reflected solar radiation. Methane concentration in the Martian atmosphere undergoes spatial and temporal variations," the top space scientist said.

As a chemical compound of one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen (CH4), methane is a colourless and odourless gas, which is in abundance on earth, indicating existential life.

The find could be successful not only for India but also for global community as earlier attempts to detect methane on Mars were made from ground-based observations.

The second instrument - Lyman Alpha Photometer (LAP) - will study the atmospheric process of Mars and measure the deuterium (isotope) and hydrogen ratio and neutral particles in its upper atmosphere.

"The third is a Mars Colour Camera (MCC) to take images of the planet, its surface and data on its composition. Pictures and data will be used to study the dynamic events and the Martian weather," the chairman added.

The tri-colour camera will provide a stunning view of Mars.

The other two instruments - Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (MENCA) and Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS) - will analyse the neutral composition and measure the temperature during day and night to map the surface composition and mineralogy of Mars.

"If the mission's primary objectives was to develop technologies for enabling the Orbiter's launch, its voyage to Mars and reach the Martian orbit, the scientific objectives will explore its surface features, morphology, topography, mineralogy and its atmosphere," space agency director Deviprasad Karnic told IANS ahead of the launch.

(Fakir Balaji can be contacted at

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