In a first for India, the country is launching a robotic spacecraft into orbit around Mars this week to study the planet’s atmosphere and conduct scientific experiments.
K Radhakrishnan, chair of India’s space agency the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), told BBC News the researchers are hoping to find methane, the principal component of natural gas, and to determine if it has a biological or geological origin.
The fact that US space agency NASA’s Curiosity rover has yet to find methane on Mars has not deterred the Indian mission.
“Curiosity is measuring the presence of methane in a small area where it is there today,” Radhakrishnan said. “We are talking about the entire Martian environment.”
The spacecraft needs to be launched by the end of this month in order to ensure it travels the minimum distance between Earth and Mars.
Radhakrishnan said the Mars orbiter is to lift off this week from Sriharikota, on the east coast of India. It will take about 300 days for the spacecraft to capture the orbit of Mars, which has been scheduled to occur on 21 September 2014.
Another significant project for India’s space programme is the launch of a second spacecraft to the moon in 2016, Chandrayaan-2, that will see a rover land on the moon’s surface.
India’s previous moon mission in 2008 involved the Chandrayaan-1probe orbiting the moon.
Mars probe image via Shutterstock