Scientists from India and Russia have collaborated again to work on a new mission to explore Mars. According to Elena Karpovich, a researcher at the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), the mission will include a ‘Marsoplane’, a robotic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to study the Martian atmosphere and surface.
This new Mars mission is being developed jointly by IIT Kharagpur, a space research institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and is part of an agreement signed between India and Russia in 2021 to deepen space cooperation. The agreement was signed on December 6 that year between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin to enhance cooperation between ISRO and Russian space agency Roscosmos.
“The Mars robotic flying craft is being engineered by an international team that includes computational fluid dynamics experts from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur,” the researcher told Russian media agency TASS. Engineers revealed that work on the Marsoplane began in April 2022 after receiving funding from the Russian Science Fund, and a test flight is targeted for late 2024. “Scientific missions may include climate, mineralogical and thermal studies as well as the study of the Martian magnetic field,” he told TASS.
(Mars as seen from the Perseverance rover; Photo: NASA)
He also outlined the mission’s challenges — making the UAV lightweight, durable enough to withstand a Martian dust storm, and compact enough to fit inside a rocket’s fairing. The Martian atmosphere itself will be a major challenge because it is extremely thin, less than 1% by volume compared to Earth’s, and composed mainly of carbon dioxide.
A flight to Mars is now seen as highly plausible after the spectacular success of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter. Designed for just five flights and to prove that a powered flight was possible in the thin atmosphere of Mars, Ingenuity flew a record 45 times. The small helicopter also meets the criteria of being lightweight and durable as it weighs around two kilograms and lasts for two years.
(Intelligence Helicopter; Photo: NASA)
India-Russia relations in turbulent times
Russia is a reliable partner for India not only geopolitically but also in space. The relationship dates back to the Cold War era when Moscow assisted in the launch of its first satellite, Aryabhata, on April 19, 1975, on a Soviet Kosmos-3M rocket. India has already faced heat for refraining from openly criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though this has not undermined time-tested ties.
Apart from the Mars mission, Roscosmos is assisting ISRO in the ambitious Gaganyaan programme. The program will begin later this year with a test flight and will culminate with sending Indian citizens into space for three days. The two sides are jointly developing India’s first mission to Venus, ‘Shukrayan’, which was targeted for launch next year, but has been stalled since France pulled out of the project over Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia is willing to continue the project, even though it may cause a significant delay. Notably, Venus has emerged as a new exploration destination for space-faring nations.
Both the US space agency NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have planned their respective missions, aiming for launches in 2029 and the early 2030s. Interestingly, US-based private launch-provider Rocket Lab also announced its own Venus mission in August 2022 and is targeting a mid-2030 launch, though delays are possible.
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