Liftoff! India's First Mars Probe Launches
Indian Space Research Organisation
India's first mission to Mars, the Mars Orbiter Mission, launches the Mangalyaan orbiter toward the Red Planet atop a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on Nov. 5, 2013.
Since NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity landed on the red planet, each sol (a Martian "day") of the mission sees a flood of new photographs from Aeolis Palus -- the plain inside Gale Crater where Curiosity landed on Aug. 5. In September 2012, mission controllers sent the command for Curiosity to flip open the dust cap in front of the robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Until that point, the semi-transparent dust cap only allowed MAHLI to make out fuzzy shapes -- although it did a great job imaging Curiosity's "head" and it is also famous for capturing Curiosity's first color photograph. But since the true clarity of MAHLI has been unleashed, we've been treated to some of the most high-resolution views of the rover, Martian landscape and, most importantly, we've seen exactly what MAHLI was designed to do: Look closely at Mars rocks and dirt, assembling geological evidence of potential past habitability of Mars.
The Business End
Curiosity is armed with 17 cameras and MAHLI is designed to capture close-up photos of geological samples and formations as the rover explores. MAHLI was designed and built by Malin Space Science Systems and is analogous to a geologist's hand lens -- only a lot more sophisticated. Its high-resolution system can focus and magnify objects as small as 12.5 micrometers (that's smaller than the width of a human hair!). This photograph captured by the rover's Mastcam shows the MAHLI lens (with dust cap in place) in the center of the end of Curiosity's instrument-laden robotic arm.
To aid its studies, MAHLI is equipped with four LEDs to light up the imager's samples.
The first photograph to be returned from MAHLI without the dust cover in place was received on Sol 33 (Sept. 8) of Curiosity's mission. Shown here is a view of the ground immediately in front of the rover. Although this photo was a test, mission scientists were able to do a very preliminary study of the large "pebble" at the bottom of the picture: "Notice that the ground immediately around that pebble has less dust visible (more gravel exposed) than in other parts of the image. The presence of the pebble may have affected the wind in a way that preferentially removes dust from the surface around it," they wrote.
How Did Lincoln Help MAHLI?
On Sol 34 (Sept. 9), MAHLI was aimed at Curiosity's calibration target. This target is intended to color balance the instrument and provide a "standard" for mission scientists to refer to. The 1909 Lincoln penny was provided by MAHLI's principal investigatory Ken Edgett. Using a penny as a calibration target is a nod to geologists' tradition of placing a coin or some other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks, says the MSL mission site.
Although MAHLI will be used to examine microscopic scales, it is showing its prowess at generating some spectacular high-definition views of the rover. Shown here is a mosaic of Curiosity's three left-side dusty wheels.
Hazard Avoidance Cameras
Hazard Avoidance Cameras, or Hazcams, have become "standard issue" for the last three rovers to land on Mars. Mounted on the front and back of rovers Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity, these small cameras provide invaluable information about the terrain and potential hazards surrounding the rovers. These cameras are not scientific cameras -- they are engineering cameras. Shown here, MAHLI has imaged the four front Hazcams on Curiosity. Interestingly, it was these cameras who returned Curiosity's first dusty image after touch down in August.
Using the flexibility of the robotic arm, MAHLI was able to check the underside of Curiosity. As the camera can focus on objects from 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, MAHLI has incredible versatility allowing mission controllers to focus on the very small features of Mars to checking the health of the rover to viewing the impressive vistas beyond.
In October 2012, the Internet was abuzz with speculation about a "mystery object" lying beneath the rover during digging operations at "Rocknest." Sadly, after studying the translucent object, mission scientists deduced that it wasn't anything native to the alien environment, it was actually a piece of plastic that had fallen from Curiosity. Yes, Curiosity is littering the red planet.
The MAHLI camera was very attentive while Curiosity dug trenches in the Mars soil at "Rocknest."
In early 2013, MAHLI snapped another curious photo. This time, after driving to a rocky outcrop at a location dubbed "Yellowknife," the camera picked out what appeared to be some kind of organic-looking object embedded in the rock. Nope, it's not a Mars "flower" -- more likely it's a concentration of minerals.
In what has become an iconic photo of Curiosity, MAHLI was commanded to capture dozens of high-resolution pictures of the rover. Like an "arms length" shot you may have in your Facebook profile, Curiosity did the same, composing a mosaic of pics taken with its outstretched robotic arm.
Curiosity Cleans Up!
The Mars rover isn't only a scientific superstar, it also has a talent for cleaning. This circular pattern on a Mars rock was brushed aside by Curiosity's Dust Removal Tool (DRT), helping the rover carry out analysis of the rock surface beneath the layer of dirt.
India's first-ever mission to Mars launched into space today (Nov. 5), beginning the country's first interplanetary mission to explore the solar system.
With a thunderous roar, India's Mars Orbiter Mission rocketed into space at 4:08 a.m. EST (0908 GMT) from the Indian Space Research Organisation's Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, where the local time will be 2:38 p.m. in the afternoon. An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle launched the probe on its 300-day trek into orbit around the Red Planet.
"The journey has only just begun," said ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan after the successful launch. (India's First Mars Mission (Photos))
Less than an hour after liftoff, Radhakrishnan reported that India's Mars probe successfully entered a staging orbit around Earth. Mars Orbiter Mission director Kunhi Krishnan describing the launch as a start to a "grand and glorious" mission.
If all goes well, India's first Mars orbiter -- called Mangalyaan (Hindi for "Mars Craft") -- will arrive at the Red Planet on Sept. 24, 2014, making India the fourth country to successfully deliver a spacecraft to Mars.
The $73.5 million Mangalyaan spacecraft weighs 2,980 pounds (1,350 kilograms). Through the course of several orbits, the spacecraft will perform a series of maneuvers to place it on a path to Mars.
Once at Mars, the probe will explore the surface features of the Red Planet and probe its atmosphere for signs of nonbiological or microbe-emitted methane. The spacecraft is also designed to test technology used for navigation, communication and interplanetary space travel, ISRO officials have said.
"We have a lot to understand about the universe, the solar system where we live in, and it has been humankind's quest from the beginning," Radhakrishnan told the Associated Press before launch.
If the probe reaches Mars, it will make India the fourth country (or collaboration of countries) to reach the Red Planet after the former Soviet Union, the United States and Europe. Nearly two-thirds of the 51 missions ever launched to Mars have failed.
"To visit another planet is a fantastic thing, the biggest thing," space scientist Yash Pal, a former chairman of India's University Grants Commission who was not involved in developing the Mars mission, told the Associated Press. "If you can afford airplanes and war machines, you can certainly spend something to fulfill the dreams of young people."
The Mangalyaan orbiter is carrying five instruments to Mars:
Lyman Alpha Photometer used to measure the loss process of water from the planet.
Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer to create a map of the Martian surface.
Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer to study Mars' atmosphere.
Mars Color Camera to take pictures of Mars' surfaces and Martian weather events. The camera will also take photos of moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.
Methane Sensor for Mars will search for methane in the atmosphere of Mars.
India's Mars mission follows the country's Chandrayaan 1 moon orbiter mission, which helped detect evidence of water ice on the lunar surface. The ISRO is also developing Chandrayaan 2, a follow-up mission, to continue its lunar exploration.
India is not the only country launching a mission to Mars this month. In the United States, NASA is planning to launch its own Mars orbiter -- called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) -- on Nov. 18.
NASA's Maven mission to Mars is designed to study the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail. The $671 million mission is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
This article originally appeared on Space.com. More from Space.com:
The Boldest Mars Missions in History
India's First Mars Mission Prepares for Launch | Video
How India's First Mars Mission Works (Infographic)
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