We are not ruling out the presence of organic forms on Mars: Dr Jitendra Goswami

Nov 13, 2013, 20:06 IST | Dhiman Chattopadhyay

Less than 48 hours before India's first mission to the red planet, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), takes off from Andhra Pradesh, Jitendra Goswami, the mission's senior scientific advisor and the man who led India's first-ever Moon mission Chandrayan-1 a few years ago, speaks exclusively to Dhiman Chattopadhyay on the possibility of finding the methane gas on Mars � usually a clear sign of the existence of some organic life form

He also talks about finding out why water disappeared from the planet and why India is sending a spacecraft to Mars in the first place

When India sent its first Moon mission in 2008-09, many in the developed world scoffed at Chandrayan-1 finding anything significant. But it did, confounding experts by detecting the presence of water on the Moon’s surface, something which the previous NASA missions had failed to detect. Days before the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) takes off (it is not called Mangalayan as reports in a section of the media would have us believe) from Andhra Pradesh on November 5, Dr Jitendra Goswami sounded quietly confident that the mission would be successful, even though he took pains to stress that this was also a mission to show the world that India was technologically capable of sending a spacecraft, which could orbit Mars successfully.

Dr Jitendra Goswami says apart from obvious scientific reasons, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also show the world that India has the technology to send a spacecraft to Mars

What does the Mars Orbiter Mission hope to find?
We are not sending this mission in the hope of finding anything specific. Did we know we would find water on the moon’s surface when we sent Chadranayan-1? We did not. Our world is full of surprises. Let us see what this mission brings. But let me tell you that primarily this is a technological mission, a mission that shows the world what we are capable of. The mission would be a great learning opportunity for India’s future interplanetary explorations. Of course, we do have technology gaps. So, among the main objectives of this mission is to develop technologies required for design, planning, management and operations of an interplanetary mission.

Earlier missions had found traces of methane, a gas that usually indicates the presence of some form of life, on Mars. But NASA’s recent Rover mission failed to detect any methane. Earlier missions have also mentioned possible presence of water on Mars billions of years ago...
We should keep our minds open. What we are looking for is something organic, which can pave way for further explorations. If we get evidence of the presence of water or methane, then who knows, there could be something else also.

You mention technological gaps. So will the mission have enough instruments to record the presence of gases, water or even life?
The mission will not be carrying too many scientific instruments, just five in fact. But we would have a colour camera, a thermal infrared imaging system, a photometre, an exospheric composition analyser and a methane sensor. Many of these will be placed side by side so that we can zero in on the location of any gas or organic molecule, if found.

Fiction writers and even some scientists have long been talking about life form on Mars. What’s your take?
If earlier Mars missions are taken into consideration, methane probably exists in Mars. The Mars Express had found the gas even though the Rover craft did not. But I believe the Rover had limited success since it could only record findings on a particular spot on the red planet. Our mission in comparison will have the capacity to track a very large area of Mars. It is very possible that a particular area of the planet does not have the presence of a particular gas or molecule but another area has. Just like the pollution levels in all areas of Mumbai are not the same.

So would you say organic forms existed in Mars at one point at least?
If traces of water and methane are indeed found, one will have to investigate further. Methane or CH4 is an organic molecule. When one finds traces of water and an organic molecule on a planet, there should be enormous curiosity. But at this moment we are also seeking answers to another fundamental question: If water existed on Mars then how and why did it disappear?

How long will it take MOM to reach Mars?
Once the spacecraft takes off, it will take roughly 300 days to reach the atmosphere of Mars. Thanks to the fact that the craft will also be influenced by the Sun’s gravity, it will get critical energy to sustain itself for the next few months. I do not see any problems for the first six months when the craft orbits the red planet and sends back images and data for research. After six months, we will take a call.

In a recent BBC interview, you were asked why India was sending a mission to Mars when the country had more pressing economic issues at home. How do you react to this?
If this mission was taking off in the 1980s or the early 1990s, I could understand the developed world questioning us on why we need to send rockets to the Moon and Mars when our economy is so poor. But this is not the case any more.

India’s economic problems today do not stem from lack of resources. The problem lies in execution or delivery. The government machinery needs to fix that. We are sending this mission for the greater good of science, to get answers which may help future generations make the world a better place. Also, the cost of the mission would not exceed $70 million, which is a modest budget compared to how much other countries invest in their missions.

On a personal level, being at the forefront of India’s maiden missions to the Moon and now Mars must be a huge high?
From a young age I was interested in the solar system. My PhD was on cosmic ray records found by the Apollo and Luna missions. I have been involved with the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad since the 1970s as well as with ISRO and many other organisations. When I look back today, more than all the personal awards and recognitions, what gives me the greatest satisfaction is to see India send missions to the Moon and now to Mars. 

Dr. Goswami's interview with BBC's Justin Rowlatt, Exchanges at the Frontier can be downloaded as a podcast at bbc.com/worldservice

Direct Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01kdgsy

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