Morn­ing Af­ter in Mars

The mis­sion to Mars marks the golden age of NASA’S space ex­plo­ration. In­dia’s ISRO can be equally in­spi­ra­tional in man’s search of “star stuff”, says an In­dian sci­en­tist at NASA.

India Today - - INSIDE - By Partha Pra­tim Bera

The mis­sion to Mars marks the golden age of NASA’s space ex­plo­ration. In­dia’s ISRO can be equally in­spi­ra­tional in man’s search of “star stuff”, says an In­dian sci­en­tist at NASA.

Gold medal for NASA. Cu­rios­ity sticks the land­ing,” read the gi­ant elec­tronic board at the en­trance of NASA Ames Re­search Cen­ter in the heart of Sil­i­con Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, on Au­gust 6. The night be­fore, Shenan­doah Plaza, yards away from the board, was filled with thou­sands of space en­thu­si­asts who were wait­ing with bated breath to ex­pe­ri­ence an in­cred­i­ble feat of the cu­ri­ous hu­man mind: The land­ing of NASA’s space­craft, Cu­rios­ity, on a crater, Gale, atop planet Mars.

Cu­rios­ity has jour­neyed 352 mil­lion miles for eight- and- a- half months to sat­isfy one eter­nal cu­rios­ity: Did the Red Planet ever of­fer con­di­tions suit­able for even the sim­plest form of life? The suc­cess­ful land­ing has ended one very chal­leng­ing as­pect of NASA’s Mars mis­sion. How­ever, the most sig­nif­i­cant part of the ex­plo­ration and ex­cit­ing sci­ence is about to be­gin.

As Cu­rios­ity en­tered the fi­nal and most tricky stage of its solo flight on Au­gust 5, over 7,000 peo­ple braved the chilly winds from the San Fran­cisco Bay to cel­e­brate the his­toric event. Six- year- old Liz came with her mother, fa­ther and lit­tle brother in a crib, mid­dle school­ers came in buses, young soft­ware en­gi­neers came from hun­dreds of com­pa­nies close by. There were space en­thu­si­asts on camp chairs, Star Trek fans, hip­pies, food trucks, pub­lic lec­tures, sci­ence booths manned by NASA sci­en­tists, DJs blast­ing out tracks. Around 10 p. m., the an­tic­i­pa­tion reached fever pitch as the count- down to the fi­nal seven min­utes be­fore touch­down be­gan. All eyes were fixed on the gi­ant screens. Seven min­utes later, amidst a sur­feit of fist- pump­ing, clap­ping, cheer­ing and yelling, a dream came true: We were in Mars.

It is un­doubt­edly the hard­est and most am­bi­tious ro­botic ex­plo­ration mis­sion ever at­tempted by NASA. Hun­dreds of sci­en­tists have been work­ing on this engi­neer­ing mar­vel for over 14 years— plan­ning, de­sign­ing, de­vel­op­ing and test­ing. A heavy pay­load of nearly a tonne has ne­ces­si­tated an ex­tra­or­di­nary sky crane with booster rock­ets and heavy duty ca­bles to slow down and soft- land Cu­rios­ity on the Mar­tian sur­face. Af­ter it was launched from the Kennedy Space Cen­ter at Cape Canaveral in Florida on Novem­ber 26, 2011, Cu­rios­ity has

had to beat all kinds of odds. What the world wit­nessed was just the fi­nal phase: From cruise stage sep­a­ra­tion, en­try into Mars at­mos­phere, heat­ing and slow­down, pow­ered de­scent and land­ing by sky crane.

What will Cu­rios­ity ex­actly do on the sur­face of Mars? Dur­ing its two- year life­time, the Mars Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory ( MSL) on board Cu­rios­ity will per­form a host of sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments. Mars, like earth, also falls in the hab­it­able zone, the re­gion around a star where a planet can main­tain sur­face wa­ter. There is no ev­i­dence of liq­uid wa­ter on Mars, but it has ice­capped north and south poles. Cu­rios­ity will beam in­for­ma­tion back to the earth on Mar­tian ge­ol­ogy, soil com­po­si­tion, at­mos­phere and other en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, us­ing its state- of- the- art cam­eras, ra­di­a­tion de­tec­tors, spec­trom­e­ters, and at­mo­spheric sen­sors.

ChemCam, the chem­istry and cam­era in­stru­ment on Cu­rios­ity, will shoot a laser beam and an­a­lyse the com­po­si­tion of the soil and rock. CheMin, the chem­istry and min­er­al­ogy X- ray in­stru­ments, will ex­am­ine the pres­ence of min­er­als, expected to in­di­cate en­vi­ron­ments and wa­ter mil­lions of years ago. MastCam will take snap­shots of the Mar­tian ter­rain. Sam­ple Anal­y­sis at Mars ( SAM) will look for or­ganic mol­e­cules with pre­bi­otic po­ten­tial, which will in­di­cate po­ten­tial hab­it­abil­ity in the past. There ex­ists a mound, 5 km in height, at the cen­tre of the crater. Data from pre­vi­ous Mars mis­sions in­di­cated abun­dance of wa­ter in the past. If MSL finds min­er­als formed in wa­ter, such as clay, and com­plex or­ganic com­pounds con­tain­ing car­bon, hy­dro­gen, ni­tro­gen, oxy­gen and sul­phur, it will mean that suit­able en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions for life pos­si­bly ex­isted. With the suc­cess­ful land­ing of Cu­rios­ity, we are in a good po­si­tion to start ask­ing these vi­tal ques­tions. We also ex­pect the MSL to pro­vide data that will help us search for some of the an­swers.

We are en­ter­ing the golden age of space ex­plo­ration. Many on­go­ing and forth­com­ing mis­sions from NASA may change the way we view the uni­verse and life in the uni­verse. KE­PLER, a mis­sion con­cep­tu­alised and head­quar­tered at NASA Ames Re­search Cen­ter, is si­mul­ta­ne­ously ob­serv­ing hun­dreds and thou­sands of stars in our Milky Way galaxy and search­ing for earth­sized plan­ets in the hab­it­able zones of nearby stars. Hub­ble Space Tele­scope pic­tures of the vis­i­ble uni­verse have mes­merised us since child­hood. On­go­ing mis­sion SOFIA, an air­borne ob­ser­va­tory, will rev­o­lu­tionise as­tron­omy af­ter Hub­ble and other space tele­scopes. James Webb Space Tele­scope is sched­uled to be launched in 2018 to look for the first lu­mi­nous ob­jects af­ter Big Bang and un­ravel how galax­ies evolved. Plan­e­tary mis­sion MAVEN will bring Mars even closer to our doorstep. NASA, how­ever, means more than just mis­sions. It’s about the in­spi­ra­tion it pro­vides to mil­lions of young minds about the glamour of state- of- the- art sci­ence and engi­neer­ing, the celebri­ties it cre­ates— be it the Mo­hawk Flight Di­rec­tor at mis­sion con­trol of Cu­rios­ity, an In­ter­net sen­sa­tion now, or house­hold names such as Kal­pana Chawla or Su­nita Wil­liams who in­spire gen­er­a­tions. It is this call of the uni­verse that brings In­dian sci­en­tists to NASA, to work on space, earth, bi­o­log­i­cal sciences, aero­nau­tics, fluid me­chan­ics and sev­eral other ar­eas. It’s

a story that can be re­peated in In­dia. The In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion ( ISRO) can be equally in­spi­ra­tional to the world. Chan­drayaan- 1 has been a grand suc­cess. The data it has sent has proved the pres­ence of wa­ter on the moon. ISRO is now pre­par­ing to launch Chan­drayaan- 2, a mis­sion that will have an or­biter and a lan­der- rover in the next cou­ple of years. It will test soil and rocks on the moon’s sur­face and give a huge strate­gic ad­van­tage to the In­dian space pro­gramme as there are just two other mis­sions to the moon planned in the near fu­ture: The Chi­nese mis­sion, Change 3, and NASA’S LADEE. The Gov­ern­ment of In­dia has just ap­proved a highly an­tic­i­pated or­biter mis­sion to Mars, planned for launch next year by ISRO.

Carl Sa­gan once said, “We are made of star stuff.” Per­haps we will find out in this cen­tury if such “star stuff” gave birth to life as we know it in other ce­les­tial bod­ies near us. That will tell us if we are alone or the uni­verse is teem­ing with life. Hope­fully, In­dia will be a lead­ing part­ner in that ef­fort. Partha P. Bera is a re­search sci­en­tist in

the Space Sci­ence and As­tro­bi­ol­ogy division at NASA Ames Re­search Cen­ter

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