After spending almost a year getting to Mars, India’s Mangalyaan and NASA’s MAVEN are certainly not wasting any time. Both managed to beam back their first snaps of the Red Planet within hours of arrival.
On the evening of Sunday September 21, a mere eight hours after slipping into orbit, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft used its Imaging UV Spectrograph to grab false color images in three different UV wavelengths. The observations were taken from an altitude of 36,500 kilometers (22,680 miles), according to the NASA website.
As described by NASA officials, blue shows UV light from the Sun that has been scattered by hydrogen in a huge cloud extending thousands of kilometers above Mars’ surface. Green again shows UV from the Sun but this time it has been reflected off of oxygen in a smaller cloud. Finally, red shows UV reflected from the planet’s surface. The bright patch at the bottom is light that has probably been reflected from polar ice.
The reason that the green cloud is tighter to the planet is because oxygen gas is held close by gravity; hydrogen gas is lighter and so reaches higher altitudes. Both of them result from the breakdown of water molecules and CO2 in the atmosphere. Researchers hope to use observations such as this to determine the rate that gases are escaping from the Martian atmosphere into space. This will hopefully help us understand why Mars transitioned from a wet planet to the cold, dry world that we see today.
This morning, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) officials uploaded a photo from Mangalyaan onto its Twitter and Facebook pages, with the caption “The view is nice up here.” The photo showcased Mars’ crater-speckled surface, snapped from a height of 7,300 kilometers (4,536 miles). According to senior scientist V. Koteswara Rao, the craft has already taken more than ten photos and is functioning well.
“The Mars color camera on board started working soon after Orbiter stabilized in the elliptical orbit of Mars and has taken a dozen quality pictures of its surface and its surroundings,” Rao told AFP News. “The camera will also take images of the Red Planet’s two moons and beam them into our deep space network center.”
Getting to Mars is no small feat; over half the attempts to reach the planet have failed. Remarkably, ISRO managed to safely arrive on its maiden voyage, making it only the second space agency to do so. Furthermore, the mission only cost $74 million; a fraction of MAVEN’s $671 million price tag. While critics have argued that a poverty-stricken developing country should not be wasting money on space exploration, boosting its space business has the potential to put a substantial amount of money in the country’s wallet by attracting investors and customers to hire launch rockets.