Wednesday, February 24, 2016

MOM's MENCA brings divine wealth from Mars

MENCA (Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser) is a quadrupole mass spectrometer on-board India's Mars Orbiter Mission, MOM. In Indian mythology, "Menaka" considered to be the prettiest dancers (nymph)  in "Indralok" the palace of god's god, "The Indra". Hence the first published results of MENCA from Mars is like a divine wealth, I must say. The results are published 2-days ago in Geophysical Research Letters, GRL. Barring few conference abstracts  and a recent summary of MOM sub-systems in an Indian journal, this is the very FIRST science result that the Indian MOM has churned out on the international forum; hoping for many more to come.

A series of posts here have been appearing soon after the MOM project was approved by Indian Central government. In one of my posts here, I had given a highest rank (8 out of 10) to MENCA among the FIVE instruments flown on MOM. Today my prediction has come TRUE; I feel I am on seventh cloud. I could say this not only for the prediction, but also also due to my personal experience of our attempts to publish the peak#18 (Water) data from Moon in December 2008, measured by a similar kind of instrument in the Chandrayaan-I. It was (then) rejected by calling it as "contamination" (Science journal). Later in November-2009 the M3-instrument's remote sensing data of Water from Chandrayaan-I was published by Science.

Credit : SPL, VSSC, ISRO
MENCA is based on the similar platform as that of CHACE (CHandra's Altitudinal Composition Explorer) built at Space Physics Laboratory (almost by the same group) of ISRO's Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, in southern part of India. Thanks to the rule books of ISRO, a heritage class of instruments is always struck to the similar processes of qualifying for the flight; it is only the mission demands which could bring in any minute alteration. Basically, its a neutral gas mass spectrometer covering 1-300 amu range with a capability of separating single mass unit. The Mars Orbiter Mission was inserted into Martian atmosphere in 24th September 2014; with an orbit parameters of 400 X 71,000 km.

After the completion of ONE year of primary mission (Sept. 2015), the present observations were made as MOM is made to dip down to 260-km from its normal perigee point of 400-km. While dipping down, MENCA had better chances of collecting neutral sopecies data.  MENCA has successfully measured the altitudinal profiles of CO2, (N2+CO) and O (details given in the GRL paper). This is exactly what I had recommended in my Nov. 2013 post that to be able to monitor meaningful data with MENCA, the perigee of MOM was needed to be lowered so as to skim through the neutrals.

It gives me an immense satisfaction and PRIDE that MENCA has come up with flying colors and definitely stands to get more than 8-points out of 10, as I had predicted. To repeat from my earlier post, among the five payloads on-board MOM, both 1. MCC, 2.TIRS are imaging instruments. Big science is expected from 3. Methane Sensor for Mars, MSM. The 4. Lyman Alpha Photometer, LAP too carries a great scientific value for its potential in estimating Martian atmospheric loss.  But, the day belongs to 5. MENCA. The hard lessons learned in developing CHACE during Chandrayaan-I were all worth. I like to end by saying " MENCA's triumph on Mars means ...........  Lunar CHACE was correct"

A similar version of this post appeared on Planetary Science site ....

Monday, January 4, 2016

Methane elusive on Mars and to MOM

Here is an inquisitive part of news from the Indian probe, Mars Orbiter Mission, MOM, pertaining to the measurement of Methane.

As per a report appearing today in the The Financial Express, speaking at the Indian Science congress, Mr. S.K. Shivakumar, ex-director ISAC-ISRO has made a statement that the MOM is yet to find methane on Mars.

He also commented that the MOM has survived the solar conjunction for a period of 2-weeks or so in the month of June-2015. However, all the 5-scientific instruments have come back to normal operation since then. MOM was originally designed to work for 6-months; though a year has already passed; the available 37-kg of fuel as of today may take a long time to be exhausted; is what he has claimed.

We all wish MOM and all the other orbiters around the Red planet and the rovers the very best in hunting down the elusive methane.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Science from MAVEN, MOM

Key words: Mars Orbiter Mission, MOM, MAVEN, Mars Science results

I must confess that the trigger to write this post is NOT only due to the findings on Mars unfolded at the last week's 46th  LPSC conference (a. discovery of Martian aurora, b. finding dust particles at 90 km), but also a set of 2-papers published today at PNAS by the Curiosity team (supporting the existence of life on Mars). Unlike my earlier posts, most of the contents discussed here would be more on technical side. It has always been in my mind to bring out some expected science products from MAVEN and MOM. As I browsed through the abstracts listed on LPSC site (on a public domain); I went past both the sessions on Early results from MAVEN in a breeze, an exhilarating experience; while MOM had a solitary representation. Let us dig deep into the results (MAVEN-MOM).

MAVEN results (46th LPSC conference):
The two sessions of MAVEN at LPSC pretty much wrap up what is expected from MAVEN. I was awestruck at the performance of IUV-Spectrograph (discovery of Martian Aurora), congratulations......  McClintock/Nick Schnider (great heritage of C.A Barth @LASP). Lyman alpha lines of Hydrogen/Deuterium cleanly separated; along with a broad spectral range to pick, finally offering a luxury of imaging mode... this is awesome. To top it up, the IUVS is a WINNER to grab the image of Siding Spring nucleus, must say a life time opportunity. The mass spectrometer from GSFC, NGIMS has performed exceptionally well by measuring the neutral/ionic species in 150-400 km regimes. Paul Mahaffy's group holds the unique distinction of having their baby on Martian ground as well as on the orbiter. The solar electron/ion analyzers are bang on target in churning out very important data.  The discovery of dust particles at altitudes of 90 km too falls in the kitty of MAVEN. It will be interesting to hunt Helium (Ly-alpha) line 58.4 nm and the other high energy solar radiation by EUV spectrograph, which would give crucial inputs to the radiation budget estimations. Apologies for my ignorance on magnetic field, Langmuir probes.

MOM results Prediction mode:
11th August, 2015 : ISRO makes MOM data public on project proposal basis to Indian nationals, here is the : LINK

The technology demonstrator, MOM has already been out performing its expectations by clicking exceptionally good quality color images by virtue of its  1. Mars Color Camera (MCC) from its apogee (furthest, 76,000 km). Ms. Emily Lakdawalla, in her blog brought out an excellent comparison of MOM images with that of all the other taken in the past. She goes on to say in the same post that even the color images from MOM themselves will be a great success. There have been around a dozen images which are posted on facebook page of isromom. Few weeks ago, the 2. Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM) was showcased by posting a sample image taken near the Methane emission band; discussed in detail here on my post. MSM, basically is a Fabry-Perot etalon based differential radiometer which measures the columnar density of methane. As can safely be assumed that MSM is on its way to hunt down methane, the outcome of this wonder baby depends more on episodic nature of methane gas itself.

Credit: ISRO
This leaves, 3-more payloads to come up to the stage. 

3. MENCA (Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Explorer) is a quadrupole mass spectrometer, an upgraded version of CHACE (CHandra's Altitudinal Composition Explorer) developed by our team in the Chandrayaan-I mission. It covers 1-300 amu with a resolution of one mass unit. As discussed in my earlier post here, MENCA has a huge potential to measure the neutral species in its ambiance (in-situ) by virtue of its unparalleled sensitivity of measuring gaseous partial pressures down to 10X(-14) torr. As the MAVEN's NGIMS has shown that the neutral species cease to exist above 400 kms; my plea to team-ISRO is please go for a DIP-DEEP mission (as MAVEN did) so that MENCA can skim the prevailing species below the present perigee point of ~400 km of MOM.

4. TIS  (Thermal Infra red Spectrometer): Keeping up the tradition of IR imaging spectrographs, ISRO has come up with a latest development for Mars mission, the TIS covers the 7-13 micron spectral region. The scientific goals of this instrument are:  i. estimate surface temperature, ii. mineral composition and iii. variability of aerosol/dust in Martian atmosphere. Though it falls under the heritage class; this payload has certainly jumped into a new spectral regime and hence an appropriate set of hardware. One can certainly look for a wealth of information on mineralogy and an extra bit on aerosol and dust.

5. LAP (Lyman Alpha Photometer): Team-ISRO has ventured into a new arena by developing a unique payload to measure the Lyman alpha line ratio of Hydrogen, Deuterium which would answer few questions on Martian atmospheric losses. LAP data would certainly have a lot to compare with that of IUVS, which has already brought a clean separation of H, D lines near 121.5 nm. The advantage LAP seems to be carrying is due to its technique of measuring the resonance absorption of H, D atoms by a specially selected solar blind PMT (Photomultiplier) which may offer an appreciable sensitivity to these measurements. Well... lets hope that LAP slips into a heritage class after this mission.

Hoping for an exciting time ahead when we have abundance amount of data from the  payloads of MAVEN and MOM.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

MOM Results from Mars

We all have been eagerly waiting for MOM to bring the scientific wealth from Mars. Except for the few pretty COLOUR images from MCC (Mars Color Camera), the common man in India has almost forgotten MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission). The highly exciting rendezvous with comet Sliding Spring on Mars did not yield any results to the public yet. On the part of NASA, their baby MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvoultioN) churned out a set of data saying that the incidence indeed pumped an appreciable amount of elements (e.g. Sodium) into the Martian atmosphere. Yesterday evening, my friend Mr. Srinivas Laxman, broke the news that finally a facebook page of ISRO has flashed a color image obtained by MSM (Methane Sensor for Mars) payload. I stopped taking my dinner and rushed to the ISRO site and was excited to see that MOM has indeed climbed the first step in bringing the path breaking science at the door steps of ISRO scientists? Why so... Let me explain...

Please refer to my earlier post on MOM payloads ; here while narrating each instrument, I had also graded them on a 10-point scale system. On this scale, MSM gets a grade of 7, which is next to MENCA getting 8. It is due to the huge impact factor which is, in a way, in the form of bringing answers to the question "Whether Life exists on Mars? " that these 2-instruments stand out as the sole representatives of bringing cutting edge results.

It would be a pleasant music to the ears of Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard (GSFC) who has been the pioneer of tracking the methane on Mars by ground based telescopes; while the Indian origin Prof. S.K Atreya, Univ. of Michigan,  a veteran on studying planetary atmospheres would also be very keen to note the same.

Have a look at the image:
Credit : ISRO 
Basically it is the reflectance image of Mars collected till Dec. 16th, 2014 at a reference wavelength centred around 1.65 micron.

What does this mean ??? This means a lot ... I am too excited for the following reasons:
1. It means the payload MSM has worked wonderfully well. Unlike its well trusted policy of employing heritage tagged instruments, it is a first time attempt by ISRO in employing a Fabry-Perot etalon based instrument; every thing seems to have worked well... starting from the conceptual stage to the execution of Flight Model. This is like scaling Mt. Everest for an instrument specialist like me.

2. The image quality is excellent, which means the optics, detectors and data acquisition has worked to its optimal efficiency; while the 1.65 micron is the reference channel which measures the nearby background, the characteristic methane band is situated in next vicinity and hence it can be declared that the instrument is fully operational.  The MSM instrument is designed to measure ppb (parts per billion) level of Methane; in a recent news update the CURIOSITY rover has taken a U-turn (compared to a negative outcome for Methane detection) to announce that it has detected a 10-time (ppb level) spike of Methane in its SAM instrument.

3. Last but not the least: It has indeed opened up the skies in hunting down the elusive/episodal  methane, as if MSM is declaring that: Where are you... I am comin....

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

MOM on Mars

It all started on 19th April last year, I decided to write every bit of news which appears on ISRO's Mars mission called Mars Orbiter Mission, MOM. My google search on that day did not lead to any other location than the most robust site "wikipedia". I took liberty to address this wonderful baby of ISRO as "MOM" (instead of Mangalyaan); went on to add a M-M-M series of articles (right here) adding the American space craft, MAVEN to MOM on their journey to Mars. As per tradition ISRO was releasing a set of information on this mission; suddenly on 5th November when MOM was to be catapulted, as if a Tsunami has struck them, their site was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic and well informed users within the country and abroad. A new era has started when ISRO opened its doors via the social media on facebook ("isromom"). This site too got swarmed by 25,000 likes in a span of half an hour as MOM got "launched".
A detailed and in-depth comparison of MOM and MAVEN (below) attracted the attention of many avid readers across the globe; leading the traffic was USA. I had been spending sleepless nights in the past 3-4 days as if I am having a ride along with  MOM. The success of MAVEN reaching Mars on 22nd morning (Indian Standard Time) had brought jubilation across the Pacific Ocean and agonizing moments for all of us here in India to know whether test fire of Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) of MOM would wake it up from the deep sleep of 300-days. The 4-seconds of firing, though, appeared to be a blip on the screens of ISRO's ISTRAC center; it meant a lot to the scientists and engineers. A very well informed and well educated scribes read more than what common public could have understood from this test and went on to predict a 100% success on the D-day; 24th September, 2014 @ 7.17 am, the moment of starting the Liquid Apogee Motor to slam breaks on MOM.

ISRO matched a step by step achievement not only on the technological/scientific front; thay also did a commendable job of offering an impeccable Public Outreach program for bringing down the ultimate moment of their hard work to a "common man" (aam-aadmi, aka banana man). I am not able to phrase together my sentences as I come close to that moment - "7.17-am". A chase Hindi speaking gentleman (Mr. Alok Srivastava, Engineer, ISRO) and a sweet voiced lady had mesmerized the viewers across the  nation and took us to epoch point; though the 12-minutes of silence as MOM was dwarfed by the Red planet were agonising; everybody was struck to the faces of few prominent scientists and the chairman ISRO, Dr. Radhakrishnan. It was just around 7.59 am or so that the chairman, ISRO pumped his hands; started walking to greet the Prime minister of the nation who was  waiting anxiously at the top floor of the same complex, to know the status of MOM.  Everything turned into a Diwali (Festive) kind of  celebrations then on.

BREAKING NEWS: Just now saw (as I was writing this post) the FIRST color image being flashed by "isromom"; can you believe that in the span of 12-minutes there were 3,000 views... incredible..

I got terribly busy in bringing this event to the people here in my city; delivered almost 4-5 lectures at IIIT-H, Birla Planetarium and my own residential complex in the last 2-3 days.  Today as I browse the news on MOM; I see many interesting points worked out by the writers across the country; here are few which I liked the most:
* India to be the FIRST country to make it to Mars in its maiden attempt
* The cost effectiveness of MOM ($75-million) vs MAVEN ($670 million)
* Another comparison with Hollywood block buster GRAVITY consuming $ 100 millions
* The cost per person (Indians) on building MOM turns out to be around Rs.4.00  (around US 6-cents)
* Even the cost of journey to Mars has been around Rs. 5.77 a km; lower than an autorikshaw's ride here in India.
* The time duration of building MOM is 15-months against MAVEN's around 5-years
* ISRO leaving sphere of Earth's influence (0.95 million km) first time in its 44-years of existence 
* Though a tortures route, 6-hopping around earth and an agonizing FIRST time effort to communicate upto millions of kms away but MOM finally making it to the podium.
* ISRO managing everything in 1350 kg, less than a SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle)

Really an awesome stuff... What else I can write.... I feel as if I am having a ride around the red planet in the comfortable lap of our MOM....

As per the tradition of this blog; may I add the first image flashed by MAVEN too...

Credit : NASA

Must say ALL is WELL that ends WELL ..

Friday, September 5, 2014

MOM - The last Frontier

The sunrise of 24th September, on Indian land brings a tense wave of emotions for all the space enthusiasts, and agonizing moments lasting 30-minutes to the ISRO scientists sitting at ISTRAC on the outskirts of Bangalore, India. They will come to know whether the MOM (the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission) has performed its final act, only after another 30-minutes (time taken for the signals to travel) after the actual act of Indian probe being inserted into Martian orbit. An hour or so, after the sunrise (~ 7.00 am), their loved MOM would be facing a toughest challenge in its final frontier : TO BE ABLE TO "SLAM THE BREAKS" AT AN ASTONISHING SPEEDS OF > 80,000 km/hr so that it will find itself in the vicinity of Mars. As per the scheduled plan; this is accomplished after the MOM has gone into the shadow of Mars (with respect to Earth) and by re-orientation of the space craft.
Fuel tank assembly MOM
Credit : ISRO
But the most CRUCIAL question which is lingering on top of the "head" on everybody is: WILL THE LAM (Liquid Apogee Motor) FIRE?? The LAM has been idle for the past 300-days. This need to be "woken up". The fuel tank shown above holds the "fire power" which would answers to all the questions which are raised today, the smooth operation of 440-N liquid engine. This is where the history has been a mute spectator to many many failed attempts of visitors from earth who have lost the steam at the last leg of their race to reach the Red Planet.  As per the recent report appearing in the Indian press, the primary channel which had been used on the trans-Mars injection maneuver on 1st December, 2013 has been shut due to technical snags. The team ISRO has been making every possible effort to make use of the available resources in their kitty. The "plan-B" of utilizing secondary fuel channel is the next best option, this is what is being implemented now. There are plans of making "test fire" the secondary channel prior to the actual firing on 22nd September. There is this "last ditch effort" also at the disposal; i.e., making use of all the 8-thrusters which can be put to use; so that MOM can be brought into the vicinity of planet Mars.

Credit Vikas Thakur
Author's view: 
As a science team member of Chandrayaan-I, the author has had first hand experience in developing a science experiment, CHACE part of Moon Impact Probe. Team ISRO has gone through similar challenges when they were to be captured by the MOON during November 2008; the team has come out with the flying colors in placing Chandrayaan into the Lunar Insertion Orbit. In the culture of ISRO, the decisions are taken by a series of discussions and brain storming sessions, where starting from a youngest member to the leader of the mission is given equal opportunity to put forth their argument. I am sure this time too... wisdom would prevail and as the saying goes... Every problem comes with a solution.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Billion hearts were beating harder than the thrust of PSLV-XL which lifted MOM (India's Mars Orbiter Mission) into a  text book like (as ISRO officials call) 247 X 23,500 km orbit. Oh... by the way, the triple M treat continues (as a tradition of this post)... The pulse of the nation can be gauged by 25,000 likes just during the launch (~ 44 minutes), now 187, 000 and the count is ON for the official MOM's FB page ; also the ISRO site getting repeatedly hanged during the launch. The most heartening part of the successful launch in my view is: a bunch of primary school kids appearing in the TV- panel discussion  (mainly girls... another vow.. for the growth of India) were mesmerizing the local people here in this state by explaining each small step taken by MOM and its developers. To put it in president Kalam's words the young minds got ignited; it is indeed a Giant step for the entire nation. The fever of Mars odyssey has gripped the nation; every local newspaper carried an elaborate and technically accurate (thanks to the internet) reports running into few pages; while the quality of articles in the national level news papers reached almost a research class, credit to the intellectually strong minds of scribes and huge enthusiasm to learn about their nations proud moments. The one I liked the most is:

Courtesy: Times of India

Though quite satirical, it certainly says tonnes of words that the bullock cart ridden MOM  is ready to catch up with the huge chunk of scientific achievements which are thrown open within this celestial window.

ASSESSMENT & MARKS (for the Instruments / Mission)
Nobody can have an iota of doubt on the homework and passion with which the entire Apollo teams had worked in placing a human on the Moon. But, space missions are unforgivable, history was a mute spectator for nail biting moments faced by Neil Armstrong and his team both at the time of landing and taking off the lunar surface.  Any prediction on a given mission amounts to unscientific; however the human tendency of predicting the future events; achievements against expectations is always persistent. It is in this spirit, the following discussion has been taken up:

Here are some interesting discussions on the expectations from the five payloads (instruments) MOM is carrying. Let us define a scale called f-10; basically a factor 10 scale divided into 3-parts. The first part (2-points) is weighed on the construction quality and other parameters to be qualified as space class (consuming less weight, power, volume etc), the second aspect (2-points) can be assigned due to its heritage class, which in a way is connected to the success rate in the past missions, finally the third (6-points) and most crucial point is to do with the scientific output which brings a kind of IMPACT to the mission (the definition of a MISSION).

Construction Quality
Heritage Class
Impact Factor
f-10 no.


MCC: is color camera to obtain Mars topography
TIS: is a Spectrograph detailing mineralogy information
MENCA: is a quadrupole spectrometer studying in-situ atmospheric composition (neutral)
MSM: specially designed payload; aiming at studying the emission band of methane (remote sensing)
LAP: by measuring hydrogen to deuterium ratio it estimates atmospheric losses

MCC, TIS and MENCA are of heritage class and hence pick first 2-points each from the first category; while LAP, MSM manage only 1. The second category is purely dependent on the 0 1 logic on whether the instrument is that of heritage tag or not. The huge chunk of 6-points define the Impact factor of the mission. MENCA loses 2-points on the impact factor due to unfavorable orbit in locating methane 380X80,000km; but the front runner in this category is MSM, as this has been geared for Methane. However, the MSM loses 3-points (in the over all scale of 10) as this technology and the hardware itself is being tried for the FIRST time by ISRO; and has to mature into a heritage class.

Certainly, as argued earlier (in this blog), MENCA seems to be the front runner; though everybody have kept their bet on METHANE SENSOR FOR MARS, (MSM).

Another 10-point scale can be applied to MOM's odyssey to Mars. MOM has grabbed 3-points for the successful journey into the present elliptical orbit (247X23,500 km). The next set of complex maneuvering of taking MOM into helio-centric orbit explained very well by a report appearing in The Hindu (Report ) could take another 2-points. The crucial 5-points are to be grabbed for the ignition of LAM (Liquid Apogee Motor) after a hibernation period of 300-days. This is where the Russian/Chinese Phobos Graunt mission found it to be determental, recently.

An interesting aspect of MOM's scientific pursuit has been brought out by a report appearing in Deccan Herald, (Kalyan Ray's report). MOM seems to be taking a plunge by studying the comet C/2013A1, which happens to be around Mars vicinity as MOM approaches Mars; as I had EXACTLY predicted in my April 19th post below, that even the presence of Comet can be taken into the positive stride. The report also says that both the moons of Mars : Phobos, Deimos would be studied; after all the apogee point of MOM (80,000 km) is certainly handy in getting to study the further most moon Deimos.

One question always arises: Can we NOT reduce MOM's orbit around Mars? (below 377 km)...
WHY NOT..Even if it amounts to shell out the precious fuel MOM is carrying which would define the life time of MOM around Mars..  After all, you are aim is to get Methane; Let's provide MENCA a best opportunity to hunt down the elusive methane.

N.B.: The views presented here are only that of author. The predictions and related issues are only to estimate a reasonable chance of achieving an intended goal in author's view. This is by no mean any authoritative stand; and has NOT been done with any special purpose to promote or degrade any instrument or mission as a whole.