A mere four days after India’s first Mars spacecraft successfully entered orbit around the Red Planet on Sept. 24, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced they were going to be collaborators.
IRSO is now the fourth space agency with a presence at Mars, a feat it achieved for the remarkably cheap price tag of around $74 million. The craft is named Mangalyaan—Hindi for “Mars craft”—but is also known as MOM, for Mars Orbiter Mission.
In the past year, NASA, the world’s space exploration leader, and ISRO, which had never before sent a craft to Mars, had been exploring the possibility of partnering, but the decision was put on hold to see how things played out for India. India’s success was enough for NASA to invite ISRO into a club of Mars explorers that also includes the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency.
On Sept. 30, NASA Director Charles F. Bolden Jr. and ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan formalized a NASA-ISRO Mars Working Group. They also announced a collaborative project, the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission. Scheduled to launch in 2020, NISAR will orbit Earth, measuring the movements of surfaces such as ice and land.
“The signing of these two documents reflects the strong commitment NASA and ISRO have to advancing science and improving life on Earth,” Bolden said. “This partnership will yield tangible benefits to both our countries and the world.”
Though MOM was designed primarily as a vehicle to test ISRO’s ability to send a craft to orbit Mars, it carries five instruments, including a camera, infrared imaging spectrometer, and methane sensor. It is scheduled to spend 300 days making measurements.
Three days before MOM entered into Mars orbit, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere & Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft also reached Mars, to begin a mission to study the planet’s upper atmosphere.
Much has been made of the fact that the ISRO mission is so inexpensive. By comparison, the MAVEN mission’s price tag is approximately $671 million.
The two missions have vastly different goals, and the spacecraft are also very different, says Bruce M. Jakosky, principal investigator for the MAVEN mission and geological sciences professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For example, MAVEN’s payload is four times as large as MOM’s, and the NASA craft is performing more complex maneuvers, which require more fuel.
However, the missions potentially overlap. The agencies are still in the early stages of planning their collaboration, but Jakosky notes that both craft are carrying Lyman-α photometers that will measure the structure of the extended corona—data that are relevant to understanding how hydrogen escapes from Mars’s atmosphere.
MAVEN will be studying the upper portion of the corona; MOM will be making the same observations but at a lower altitude. It would then be ideal to combine the two data sets, which should yield a more complete picture, Jakosky says. Merging data from the two spacecraft will “require some effort but hopefully not a lot,” Jakosky says.
ISRO has launched more than 70 spacecraft in the past 40 years, including Earth- and moon-orbiting satellites.