Can you describe your background and what you do?

Moumita Dutta obtained her M Tech degree in Applied/Engineering Physics from the University of Kolkata. She joined the Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad in 2006. Since then she has been involved in many prestigious projects like Oceansat, Resourcesat, HySAT, Chandrayan I and Mars Orbiter Mission. She was chosen as Project Manager for the Methane Sensor for Mars and was given the responsibility for the development of the complete optical system, optimisation and characterisation and calibration of the sensor. Presently she is also leading a team in the indigenous development of optical sciences and working towards the realisation of the ‘Make in India’ concept. Her research area includes miniaturisation of gas sensors which involves state-of-the-art technologies in the field of optics. She is a recipient of the ISRO Team of Excellence Award for the Mars Orbiter Mission and besides being a space scientist, she is interested in literature, creative writing, recitation and music.

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Tell us what is your story? How did you start thinking of an offbeat, unconventional career such as satellite and space?

Moumita: I was studying in the 9th or 10th Std when one day, experimenting on light, I suddenly saw magnificent colours coming out of a prism. That’s when I told myself ‘Oh! I love this.’ I think that is the time when my journey with physics began. My curiosity to know the physics behind everything, started in right earnest. I also believe that in school, it is not always the subject but it is the teachers who sometimes make the subject very lively. I was very fortunate to come across some of these teachers who not only made the subject interesting to me but also made it the obvious choice for me. So, as far as space science is concerned, I was always thrilled with some of the keywords like ‘space’, ‘UFO’, and ‘aliens’. Also, when I was young, for many days, the term ‘space communication’ meant to me communication with the aliens. I got thrilled with the idea that someday I will be able to communicate with the aliens. It is another story that now for me space communication means something else.

I would like to mention another incident that when for the first time I was in Kolkata in 2004, I was reading in the Kolkata daily, Anand Bazar Patrika, about Chandrayan I mission and I was thinking how fortunate those scientists are who are getting this opportunity to work in this awesome mission. At that time, practically I had no idea that one day I would be working in this project. So it was God’s gift to me that I got this opportunity and put my heart and soul in that mission.

From that moment on I wanted to join the ISRO. A year and a half later, I did, ending up working on two sensors that would fly on the Chandrayaan-1 project [India’s first lunar mission, which launched in 2008 and found evidence of water before losing contact with Earth.] My base is the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad, mainly working on optical sensors for studying Earth and for planetary missions. For India’s 2018 lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, we will use advanced versions of the sensors flown in the last mission, carrying out a very detailed study of the lunar surface and mineralogical mapping. There will be an orbiter, a lander and a rover, with mounted instruments to carry out experiments on the surface.

Mangalyaan launched just 18 months from its conception, costing a relatively low US$75 million.  What challenges did you face in building its sensors? 

All the sensors were designed in India: a colour camera, an infrared spectrometer generating a thermal map of the Martian surface and a methane sensor. We had 15 months or so to develop them. The main challenge was to make them very compact, lightweight and low-power, because the mission was to be launched with minimum fuel. We fought for every gram. The sensors were all first of a kind, and to develop them quickly we had to use off-the-shelf — rather than space-qualified — components, then test each under extreme conditions. The team of almost 500 engineers working  across the centres on the mission worked day and night. I feel like people worked from their heart and no one cared about the clock. The mindset was that they were working for our country, and the mission had to be successful. When we received the first signal after the spacecraft was captured into Mars orbit, a wave of joy spread across the country. The project team members became the superstars of India, with people even holding their pictures on placards, like film stars. Eagerness about Indian space research has rocketed. Three years on, the orbiter still transmits data from all the sensors, which we are analysing today.

Tell us about your work

When ISRO announced the Mars mission in 2012, its primary objective was to build a capability to enter Mars’ gravity, and once there, conduct scientific experiments. The mission, especially considering the country’s limited resources, would have to be completed in record time. The rocket had to be launched when the distance between Earth and Mars was shortest, in mid-2013: only 18 months to plan, build, and test everything onboard. The orbiter had to enter an elliptical orbit around Mars from behind the planet, cutting off all communication with Earth at the most crucial stage in the mission. That would require full autonomous capability to be developed to keep it functioning. The orbiter could carry 5 sensors to carry out scientific experiments. The caveat: they would have to weigh under 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds, put together.

Moumita knew sensors. Now, she was tasked with building and testing a first-of-its-kind scientific instrument to detect methane on Mars.

It turns out the sensor Moumita worked on couldn’t have been more timely. In 2014, NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, detected a spike in methane in its immediate surroundings. Since the presence of methane could indicate that either life or water were once present on Mars, it was an exciting discovery. But to draw meaningful conclusions requires a scientific instrument that can detect even the smallest amounts of methane on the entire surface of Mars, and do so over all seasons, for months and years. Searching through the collected data would be “like searching for god,” as Moumita puts it, “of course, god, in this case, is our scientific objective.”

The demanding sensitivity of that quest shaped the design of the ISRO Methane Sensor for Mars. Moumita had worked on 12–14 payloads prior to this mission, but this was a different beast. “We were building something that had never been built before, so everyday was a new challenge,” she says.

Moumita and her colleagues concluded that their best shot at recording those fine measurements lay in a choice of an optical filter that had never been flown in interplanetary missions: etalon. It was untested, but sensitive enough to detect the smallest amounts of methane and it would bring down the weight of the sensor to under 3kg or 6.5lb. Moumita conceptualized, developed, and executed tests for the etalon. It was so critical to nail this experiment, the chairman and directors of ISRO were present for the tests.

Under the eyes of her bosses, a nervous Moumita began the trial run. “I put the etalon in the test setup, so anxious to see whether it’d give me the performance we were looking for,” she says. Then she inserted a tiny methane cell between the etalon and the parallel beams of light in the setup. The signal from the etalon dropped. “When I saw this, I thought “whoa!” I became emotional. What we’d built could actually detect methane. We knew that this would work!”

The sensor would fly to Mars, and it would have Moumita’s touch. All that remained were months of 18-hour days to make sure the mission launched on its absurdly optimistic timelines. For Moumita, the time pressure was a non-issue.

“There are long hours,” she says. “but whenever I think that the sensor I am working on will benefit my countrymen, it feels worth it.”

You are working on Chandrayan II mission too?

Moumita: Partly, as a panel we are working there in the Chandrayan II Mission.