By Fakir Balaji
Bengaluru, June 9 (IANS) India’s maiden Mars mission spacecraft Orbiter got eclipsed early on Monday, with the sun coming in between the red planet and Earth, a space official said.
“With Mars moving on one side of the sun, and Earth being on other side, our spacecraft, orbiting around the red planet, is blocked from receiving or sending signals for the next 15 days,” Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) director Devi Prasad Karnik told IANS here.
As Mars and Earth rotate around the sun on the same axis from both sides till June 22, Orbiter will be in a 15-day blackout phase, snapping communication links with the state-run space agency’s ground stations here.
Orbiting around Mars since September 24, 2014, the 1,340-kg spacecraft is on a six-month extended life after completing its six-month intended lifespan on March 24 by conserving the remaining fuel (37 kg) onboard.
“As eclipses or blackouts are a cosmic phenomenon in the solar system, no cause for concern as Orbiter has been put on autonomous mode in advance by feeding the required commands from here to survive the eclipse period,” Karnik said.
Admitting that it was the first time when the space agency’s deep space network at Baylalu, about 30 km from here, would remain cut off from Orbiter for such a long period, Karnik said the spacecraft was, however, equipped and programmed to undergo the transition phase.
“Though our command network will not receive or send signals during the blackout, we will regain control over the spacecraft after it emerges out of the Martian shadow to resume contact with our space network again,” he said.
The space agency’s track and command network centre in the city had tested Orbiter’s ability to survive a solar eclipse by simulating the conditions earlier.
“As Orbiter is on a borrowed life, its longevity and ability to keep spinning around Mars at a safe distance from its hot red surface is a windfall for us,” Karnik said.
India created history by becoming the first country to enter the Martian orbit in its maiden attempt after a nine-month voyage through the inter-planetary space.
India also became the first Asian country to have entered the Mars sphere of influence (gravity) in the maiden attempt, as a similar mission by China failed to succeed in 2011.
The $70-million Mars mission was launched on November 5, 2013 onboard a polar rocket from ISRO’s spaceport Sriharikota off the Bay of Bengal, about 80 km northeast of Chennai.
When launched, Orbiter had 855 kg fuel but consumed about 800 kg for its orbit-raising exercises undertaken during its nine-month long journey and on entering the Martian sphere.
“The five scientific instruments onboard Orbiter will continue to collect data and relay them after June 22 to our Earth stations for analysis,” Karnik said.
Of the five payloads (instruments) onboard, the Mars Colour Camera (MCC) has been the most active, taking stunning images of the red planet’s surface and its surroundings, including valleys, mountains, craters, clouds and dust storms.
“The camera has beamed many breathtaking pictures of the Martian surface and its weather patterns such as dust storms. We have uploaded some pictures on our website (www.isro.gov.in) and our Facebook account for viewing,” he pointed out.
The other four instruments have been conducting various experiments to study the Martian surface, its rich mineral composition and scan its atmosphere for methane gas to know if it can support life.
“As methane is an indicator of past life on Mars, the sensor is looking for its presence in the Martian orbit. If available, we will know its source in terms of biology and geology. The thermal infrared sensor will find out if the gas is from geological origin,” the official added.
Scientists at the mission control centre here monitor the orbital movement of the spacecraft around Mars and check the health of its instruments round-the-clock.
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 farthest from its red surface.