THERE's something alluring about the Red Planet that keeps tinkering with the world's best brains.
Mysteriously red and boasting a landscape that resembles a drought-hit Babasiga, the red-soil territory of Fiji's North, the burning questions hovering over India's mission to Mars are what the scientists involved hope to answer when the satellite returns to Earth.
Like their predecessors — the Russians and Americans, who have been to Mars in their search for answers — the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) spacemen and women hope to fill the gaps and discover more than what is known of this planet.
The PSLV XL C25 — the rocket which will carry the Mars Orbitter Mission, named Mangalyaan — must first have the right trajectory to release the probe on a path to Mars. Most importantly, it needs fine weather to ensure it stays on course to get through the Earth's atmosphere.
Scientists have to worry about more than just the cyclone season at the launch site at Sriharikota, popularly known as Shar Centre, in the Bay of Bengal.
The two special ships hired from the Shipping Corporation of India, SCI Nalanda and SCI Yamuna, needs to be on the right co-ordinates before launch but bad weather in the Pacifc Ocean has delayed the launch that was scheduled for October 28.
While the SCI Yamuna arrived in Suva and docked at the Kings Wharf on Saturday, the SCI Nalanda entered Fiji's Exclusive Economic Zone and is experiencing huge waves with the low depression experienced around the country in the past few days.
The ships, equipped to monitor the health and movement of the rocket as it coasts the sky over the Pacific Ocean, will remain in our waters from where scientists said they expected to get the clearest data up above.
This newspaper was allowed on the SCI Yamuna at the weekend but, because of the secrecy surrounding the mission, wasn't allowed to take pictures. Understandably so, as India, like some other countries, has been the subject of terrorist attacks before. There's always fear of sabotage and the team is not taking any risk.
Not even with the weather, which has now delayed the launch anytime until November 19, according ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan, who assured Indian media at the weekend the satellite for their maiden mission and the rocket — Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) — that will hoist it into space are ready.
Fiji is critical to the mission for it is from here the scientists expect to get their best feed from the satellite that will be beamed back to India for analysis of the data.
For us in the islands, it is a time of intrigue and wonder at this frontier above us that the Indians are heading to.
Our frontier below and around us — the ocean — is their headache right now.
All is not lost, according to Mr Radhakrishnan, who was quoted saying a decision on the date of the launch could possibly be taken on Tuesday, when the second ship is expected to reach its destination. Where exactly that is a secret.
The launch date was the result of a combined decision made by the ISRO, the department of space and the Indian Government that the mission to Mars should take place during the last week of October or the first week of November this year.
The satellite is aptly called the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) because "mum knows best".
Weighing 1350kg, MOM is planned to enter into a 37km by 80,000km elliptical orbit around Mars. It will cruise in deep space for 10 months using its own propulsion system and will reach Mars (Martian transfer trajectory) in September 2014.
The Indian High Commission in Fiji said one of the main objectives of the mission was to further develop the technologies required for design, planning, management and operations of an interplanetary mission.
Also the mission will showcase India's rocket launch systems, spacecraft-building and operations capabilities.
The secondary objective of the mission is scientific and includes the study of Mars surface features, morphology, mineralogy and the Martian atmosphere.
"Launch will take place from India's Space port located at Sriharikota popularly known as Shar Centre. Shar Centre is located in the East coast of Southern India, around 80km north of Chennai," a statement from the High Commission explained on Thursday.
"Besides being the most technological challenging mission attempted by ISRO so far, MOM is expected to provide data about surface composition and atmosphere of Mars," the statement read.
Fiji will be home for the group of 18 scientists who will monitor what MOM, which will carry five compact science experiments totalling a mass of 15kg, will send from space.
"Fiji comes to great help by allowing ISRO scientists to travel to Fiji by air, perform all Telemetry Data Reception (TTC) station commissioning and testing activities at Fiji port and sail further for actual launch support on ship," high commissioner Vinod Kumar said.
"In a nutshell, geographical location of Fiji Island has helped ISRO to plan its ground station networks for Mars Mission launch support in a highly-optimised manner."
Mr Kumar said for data collection, the Indian Government had sent the two ships here.
Mr Kumar said for tracking launch of PSLV XL C25/Mars Orbiter Mission, SCI Nalanda was required to be located around 19 degrees South latitude and 160 degrees West longitude while SCI Yamuna (second ship) was required to be positioned 20 degrees South latitude and 130 degrees West longitude.
"These locations are more than 9000 nautical miles from India. For any ship to travel such a long distance at one shot is very difficult and impractical.
"In this scenario, strategic location of Fiji in the South Pacific Ocean comes to great help," he said.
Mr Kumar said Fiji's location would allow scientists from the International Space Research Station (ISRO) who were part of the mission to conduct all tests in Fiji and further sail for actual launch support on ship.
"Also, Suva port of Fiji serves as a source for topping up the essential commodities for ship and facilitating the refuelling of the ships to enable these ships to sail further."
He said the stations on the ships would receive vital information of the functioning of all sub-systems of the rocket during launch and pass this information in near real time to launch control centre located in Shar, India.
Also, NASA will be assisting ISRO in providing communication and navigation support for the $F127.3M mission.
The scientists on board the SCI Yamuna have zipped up and are tight-lipped, only saying they'll now release any other information at the end of the mission.
Whether they'll find any life form on Mars is something only time will tell.
On launch day, try looking up. If you see the rocket, you're blessed.
We're part of another historic chapter of mankind.
About the launch:
* ISRO will use its PSLV-C25 rocket
* The November 2013 launch will place the Mars Orbiter Mission into Earth orbit, and then six engine firings will raise that orbit to one with an apogee of 215,000 km and a perigee of 600 km.
* The mission will be for 25 days
* A final firing in November 30 will send MOM onto an interplanetary trajectory.
* The spacecraft's dry mass is planned to be 500 kg, and it will carry 850 kg of propellant and oxidiser.
* The main engine uses the bipropellant combination monomethylhydrasine and dinitrogen tetroxide for orbit insertion and other manoeuvres.