After confirming the existence of hydrogen on Mars in 2001 and now the presence of water, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) is now trying to manufacture oxygen on the planet during its next mission, NASA scientist Dr Amitabha Ghosh said on Friday.
Dr Ghosh, who is Chair, Science Operations Working Group, Mission Operations, NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission, was in Mumbai on Friday and visited the Mumbai Press Club for a talk on the implications of the recent discovery on the planet. The NASA had last week confirmed that water had been discovered on the planet.
“We will soon be launching an insight mission to Mars to explore it using small satellites called cube sats, seismometers, heat flow instruments and a small weather station. In 2020, we will for the first time try to manufacture oxygen on Mars,” said Dr Ghosh.
The scientist, who is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, said that the presence of water and the possible manufacturing of oxygen on Mars would greatly benefit future excursions to the planet. “If there is water on Mars, we can use it for consumption as well as for other purposes like making fuel, etc instead of carrying water every time we launch a mission. The same goes for oxygen, as manufacturing it would eliminate the need to carry oxygen. This would reduce the cost of missions,” he said.
The NASA has been sending rovers — robotic machines that land and probe a planet and orbiters, space ships that orbit a planet — to Mars for several years now. In 2001, an orbiter detected hydrogen on the poles of Mars and sent landers to the spot. The landers scooped some of the ice on the spots, which was heated in ovens and the vapours analysed, which confirmed the presence of hydrogen.
In 2008, the NASA was able to confirm that the ice was frozen water, and last week, it confirmed the presence of liquid water on the planet.
Dr Ghosh on Friday also described the discovery of water on Mars as an exciting development. “The hypothesis is that the water is coming from underground reservoirs, which makes the case for water all the more stronger,” he said, adding, “However, the presence of water, while increasing the likelihood of the existence of life on Mars, does not necessarily confirm it. While life needs water, the converse is not true. Secondly, we define life as what we see on earth, but who said that is only what life is? There could be different forms. What if there is life that does not need oxygen? What if it is silicon based or carbon based?” he explained.
The NASA is now preparing to ensure that its rover survives the upcoming winter on Mars. “The planet is twice as way from the sun than Earth. The sun is very small in the Martian sky and the intensity of radiation is very low. We will have to park on the north facing slope so that the solar planers on the rovers catch sunlight and survive the winter.
Answering a question about recent commercial ventures offering to take people to Mars, Dr Ghosh said that the project did not have much hope as of now. “Even if someone offers to take you from Mumbai to Pune, the first thing you will want to see is their vehicle. Where is the vehicle in this case? They simply do not have the hardware to take people to Mars. The money is also an issue. A mission to Mars would cost around 500 billion, which means it would need 500 people paying Rs one billion. alternatively, funding from rich philanthropists would be required. Even the Bill Gates foundation has a budget of 80 billion USD. It is a good thing to rally enthusiasm but as of now they do not have the backing of any government organisation or funding,” said Dr Ghosh.
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