Monday, August 06, 2012

Probes to Mars and Student Projects

It is official now – the Indian cabinet has approved the Indian Mars probe to be launched in 2013. It will not attempt a landing on Mars like the NASA Mars Rover named Curiosity. It will presumably orbit the planet, as news items have said that the Indian probe will study the Martian atmosphere, climate and geology.
Incidentally, as I write this, the NASA website is displaying a count down timer showing that Curiosity is expected to touch down on Mars in twenty minutes! reports the cost of this US mission to be $2.5 billion. In, comparison, the budget for the Indian mission is reported to be $70-90 million. Visit
for more information on the budget estimate.

You need to be very creative when you are in a game where other players are spending over thirty times what you will be spending! A lot of creativity in India will need to be tapped. University research involving students is well-known to unleash a whole lot of creativity. Many great technologies - for instance, a good part of what is Internet technology today - has come out of universities.

I would like to stimulate student projects in electronics, physics, instrumentation, or computer science. There are possibilities for interesting life-science activities as well. I will raise a few questions relevant to all this. 
Would there be any electrical phenomena in the rarefied Martian atmosphere, perhaps resembling thunder and lightning? The atmospheric pressure there is less than one per cent of the atmospheric pressure on the earth. The Martian atmosphere consists mostly of carbon dioxide.  What instrumentation can you propose and or prototype that will help study these electrical phenomena? Is there anything like Aurora Borealis over there, in the absence of any significant magnetic field? How can that be detected?

Can a life-science department build a Martian atmosphere simulator, using a large drum, filled with mostly carbon dioxide at a very small pressure and lit by selected lamps to provide heat and light resembling what is available from the Sun on the Martian surface? Can we grow any form of plant, or microbial, life in this atmosphere? 

Will it be useful to fly even a small (robotic) astronomical  telescope in Martian orbit? What will be its special advantages? I can think of three. One is that this telescope can look at that part of the sky that is unavailable at a given time to observers on the earth, because the Sun is in that direction. Anything interesting happening in that part of the sky would be useful to observe. The second thought is that a telescope in Martian orbit could give us an entirely different way to observe asteroids and comets. These observations would complement earth-based observations, and observations from earth orbit.  The third possibility is that a telescope in Martian orbit could give us a view of the Sun different from what we get from the Earth. This could help us study of sunspots and flares better.
A question that arises is this: why Martian orbit? Is it not sufficient to have instrumentation on a space-craft in any Solar orbit? For some of the purposes discussed above, any Solar orbit would do. But we can think of some advantages like the radiation shielding provided by a body like Mars. A related thought brings us to a big question.

Can a Mars probe land on Phobos or Deimos, one of the Martian moons? Such a landing would be much easier than landing on Mars because of the reduced gravity.

A long-shot question is about the possibilities of a base on Phobos or Deimos for supporting travel to Mars and back. Such a base would provide logistic support and act as a staging station. There has been some talk of frozen ice on Phobos as it seems to be made of porous rock. That has some implications too. Can we detect minute quantities of water evaporating off the surface of Phobos, perhaps by having a Mars probe do a close pass to Phobos? 

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has a program named RESPOND to support sponsored research in its areas of interest, with a budget of Rs 15 Crores per year. Visit
for more information.

I have no personal experience of working with a project funded by RESPOND, and hope that the program interprets its areas of interest in a flexible manner to encourage creativity. Sometimes a funding agency encourages university groups to think big and come up with novel ideas that they may not have in their plan of work. That is what we should expect out of ISRO. Another point is about the balance between science and engineering. ISRO should support research in engineering and technology as much as in science. The number of engineering students doing project work in India is huge. Let us tap their creativity. Can they build a “lander” that can be dropped from a height of ten meters and land smoothly on the ground, using rockets and an on-board control computer? Can some of them design and prototype a robot that could hop around the surface of Phobos or Deimos and report its observations? Robotics is one of the central technologies for ISRO. It should be identified as a major area of research under RESPOND.  

Everything university research focuses on does not have to be built. Some may result only in the exploration of ideas and study results. Some may yield good publications or impressive demos. They should all be welcome.

Srinivasan Ramani 

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