The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter launched successfully on its mission to Mars on Monday 14 March 2016.
It lifted-off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, carrying on it an instrument co-developed by academic Dr Manish Patel in the Open University’s Space Science research priority area.
The spacecraft arrives at its destination mid-October.
Dr Patel was present at the European “mission control” in Darmstadt, Germany, along with the rest of the Open University team.
“Watching the launch was a surreal moment” said Dr Patel; “Seeing the end result of over a decade of work slowly lifting off the launch pad amidst the smoke was a terrifying but exhilarating moment. Now the spacecraft has safely left the Earth, it is onwards to Mars.”
Please tell us about your work
A star-gazing Croydon schoolboy turned space scientist could uncover if there is life on Mars after a probe he helped to design was launched into orbit this week.
Dr Manish Patel, 39, who grew up in Sanderstead, created the ultraviolet ozone mapping system for the ExoMars spacecraft that launched from Kazakhstan on Monday morning.
The probe will map methane gas emissions by looking at the sunlight and colours present in the atmosphere, which could establish whether there is life on the Red Planet.
The former Riddlesdown High School student has been working on the project for 13 years since finishing a PhD in planetary science at the Open University.
Speaking from mission control in Germany, he said: “We shouldn’t be able to see it [methane] in the atmosphere, it should be destroyed pretty quickly, but the fact that we are seeing it means that it is being replenished somehow.
“Most of the methane we know of is due to life, it is a by-product of a biological process.
“Different gases absorb different colours so by looking at that in great detail you can figure out what gases are present.
“The part we are focusing on is the ozone gas in the atmosphere.”
He said the presence of methane did not “unequivocally” mean there is life on Mars, but was a strong indicator of a “biological or geological” process similar to that on Earth.
The probe, part of two joint European and Russian space agency missions to the red planet, was launched at 9.30am UK time and took 12 hours for the orbiter to separate from the spacecraft.
It will take seven months for it to reach the atmosphere in Mars where it will remain for several years.
Dr Patel, who is also a senior lecturer in planetary sciences at Open University, added: “We don’t just want to look at it quickly, but for a long time and try and watch things being emitted and figure out where they are coming from.
“We think, most likely, it is methane that is trapped in ice that is being melted.
What do you do?
Dr Patel is co-Principal Investigator for the NOMAD (Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery) instrument on board the probe. He and his team worked specifically on the part of the NOMAD instrument called “UVIS”, a miniature ultraviolet spectrometer whose main objective is to detect and quantify trace gas concentrations but also to study aerosols present in the Martian atmosphere.
“In a couple of weeks, we will receive the first set of data from the spacecraft; after checking that everything is OK with the orbiter, the instruments will be turned on one by one, and we will need to start pouring through the data and checking that everything is ok with NOMAD following the launch,” Dr Patel explains.
“Following the initial ‘health check’ of the instrument, a series of calibration activities will be performed between now and arrival at Mars, in order to make sure that NOMAD is prepared and ready to conduct the science investigations at the right time.”
What did you study?
Manish’s parents are both Indian. His mother was born and raised in India, and his father in Uganda.
Dr Patel was born in Croydon, Surrey, where he studied his GCSEs and A-levels. He went to the University of Kent, and studied for a Masters Degree in Physics with Space Sciences. He spent a year studying in the US.
“It was difficult to get in, but I had good A-level results in Maths, Physics and Chemistry therefore I was able to secure a place. Studying was difficult, but interesting,” Manish said.
“After that, I went on to do a PhD at The Open University, working on the Beagle 2 mission to Mars where I built one of the science instruments. After that, I began work on the ExoMars instrument that was launched recently. I am now a Senior Lecturer in Planetary Sciences at the Open University, and hold a Joint Appointment at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.”
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Manish was inspired to take this profession up at an early age.
“When I was young, my father had a keen interest in astronomy. He had a telescope that we used to use together. I guess that’s how I got interested in planetary science.”
He said: “My dad had a telescope and was very interesting in astronomy so I got into it at a young age. There are so many unknowns out there, there is a massive universe out there and there is so much to learn and find out about.
“You are effectively an explorer when you look out to space and that is really what captured my imagination, wondering what is out there and doing stuff that no one has ever done before.
What were the challenges in your work
It isn’t a cakewalk, achieving the kind of objective that Manish Patel and his team have. While space control centres seem glamorous and high tech when we watch them on television, a lot of hard work goes in behind the scenes.
“There are many technical challenges to building a space instrument, and we have to solve many problems by working together and finding creative solutions. We have to miniaturise technology in order to make it fit on the spacecraft, and make sure that it works as expected in order to make the measurements we need it to. Finding sufficient funding to work on this type of research is however perhaps the hardest aspect of our work.”
Your future plans?
“Interpreting the data that will be returned will probably be the hardest part of our work which forms the research that we do. There will be lots of data returned from the spacecraft, and figuring out what it means for the possibility of life on Mars will take many years of painstaking research to unravel.”