Telescope in Maharashtra tracks spacecraft’s Mars landing

The detection was made possible by signals from the GMRT antennae and analysing them with special signal processing software that was jointly developed by GMRT and NASA.

By: IANS | Pune | Published:October 20, 2016 8:57 pm
Mount_Pleasant_Radio_Telescope 759 A radio frequency transmitter transmits waves which are the only means to ascertain the health of the lander. (Representational pictures)

In a major achievement, the Giant Metre-wave Radio Telescope (GMRT) at Khodad detected and tracked the landing of a European Space Agency spacecraft on a Mars mission, an official said here on Thursday.

“On Wednesday evening from 7.04 p.m., the GMRT clearly detected and tracked the weak signal emanating from Schiaparelli EDM, all the way into the last phases of the descent of module through the Martian atmosphere till 8.37 p.m.,” said GMRT Dean Yashwant Gupta.

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Schiaparelli’s entry and descent module (EDM) of the ExoMarch Project separated from the parent spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on October 16 after a six-month-long journey from Earth. It followed a trajectory that brought it to the point of entering the Martian atmosphere for a landing on Wednesday (October 19) evening, Gupta said.

“The six-minute journey through the (Martian) atmosphere is the most hazardous part of the project and many previous Mars lander missions have failed at this critical juncture,” Gupta said.

A radio frequency transmitter transmits waves which are the only means to ascertain the health of the lander. It must be ensured that the lander, travelling at very high speeds, doesn’t get overheated and lands without damage. During this period, the GMRT observed, detected and transmitted the waves received from the lander live to the ExoMars Mission Control centre in Germany.

In order to monitor the health of the EDM during this crucial phase, the US’s NASA had assigned GMRT, to act as a receiver station for this mission on behalf of the ExoMars Project, he added. Terming it as “a historic achievement”, Gupta said that with this, GMRT has extended its scope to the arena of planetary space missions.

Elaborating on the challenge GMRT faced, Gupta said the signal at a frequency of 401 MHz is very weak, emitted by a 5W transmitter on the EDM and it required the high sensitivity and interference-free environment of the GMRT to detect it.

“The receivers covering this frequency have been developed by National Centre of Radio Astrophysics of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, as part of GMRT’s upgrade, well in time for this (Mars) mission,” Gupta said.

The detection was made possible by signals from the GMRT antennae and analysing them with special signal processing software that was jointly developed by GMRT and NASA. The display from GMRT was streamed live to the ExoMars Mission Control centre in Germany, which provided valuable real-time monitoring facility to the project team there.

In fact, the Pune-based observatory’s system was tested in August-September with test signals generated by the NASA’s Mars Rover, which is currently exploring the Martian surface and GMRT had successfully detected them, he said. The GMRT, built and operated by TIFR’s NCRA since 15 years, is one of the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescopes operating at metre and centimeter radio wavelengths, situated at Khodad, around 70 km from Pune.