After a decade of work from a team spread across the country, NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft is on its way to Mars, beginning a mission that will—for the first time—be devoted entirely to understanding the upper atmosphere of Mars and the role loss of atmosphere has played in the evolution of the planet. Mars was once wet and had an atmosphere capable of (possibly) giving life the recipe it needed to thrive, and the $670 million Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission will shed more light on exactly why the Red Planet is now a dead, dry, desolate landscape.
MAVEN’s ride to space, the 188-foot-tall workhorse United Launch Alliance Atlas-V 401 rocket, thundered out of Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 41 under overcast skies right on time at 1:28 p.m. EST Monday afternoon. The 5,400-pound, bus-size spacecraft (with solar arrays deployed) roared into space on 860,000 pounds of thrust, pushing through the clouds and sending sonic booms out for miles around from the Atlas-V’s RD-180 engine.
“What a Monday at the office, you build something to go to Mars and we’re now flying to Mars today,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN program manager from NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “What an effort by this team to get to this point. Ten years ago we started down this path, and five years ago we put in the final proposal. We put Nov. 18, 2013 as our planned launch date and we hit it.”
The MAVEN spacecraft is now under the control of the Lockheed Martin Operations Center in Denver, Colo., as they are responsible for flying MAVEN to Mars. The spacecraft separated from the Atlas-V upper stage Centaur 52 minutes after liftoff, and MAVEN’s solar arrays—the critical 1,200-watt power source for the vehicle—were confirmed deployed just before 3 p.m.
“Everything looks good, the signals are coming in fine and so far systems that are on are reporting back right,” said Mitchell. “Our next major event will be a trajectory correction maneuver Dec. 3, and shortly after that – in the first week of two of Dec. – we’ll start turning on all our science instruments. All the reports are that everything is nominal at this point, and we were able to send up our first commands.”
The University of Colorado at Boulder, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, The University of California at Berkeley, Lockheed Martin, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory all have a role in carrying out MAVEN’s mission successfully.
“This is about the most exciting thing I can imagine happening, and this day has been picture perfect from beginning to end,” said Dr. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. “This has been a wonderful experience, and I take tremendous pride in the team for what they have been able to do to bring the instruments, science, and spacecraft that is on its way to Mars. This is a really big milestone in the process, but it’s a milestone along the way. We didn’t propose to launch a spacecraft to Mars, we proposed to do science when we got to Mars.”
Over the next 10 months MAVEN will cruise through the empty vacuum between our worlds, tapping into its 431 gallons of highly toxic hydrazine fuel to fire its thrusters for control and trajectory adjustments during the cruise and approach phases of the flight. The spacecraft will perform four course correction maneuvers en route to Mars, but most of the fuel will be conserved for MAVEN’s arrival in September 2014, when it will need most of that 431 gallons to place itself into position for orbit insertion and to perform orbital correction maneuvers once at Mars. The fuel will also help MAVEN maintain a correct elliptical orbit throughout the mission and will boost the satellite into a higher elliptical orbit at the end of its mission to relay data from other spacecraft (including the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers) currently exploring the surface of the Red Planet.
Once at Mars MAVEN will take five weeks to get into its final science-mapping orbit, test the instruments, and test science mapping sequences before beginning its one-Earth-year primary mission. MAVEN will thoroughly study the Martian upper atmosphere by measuring the current rate of escape of atmospheric gas to space. Those measurements will provide information about the relevant processes to allow extrapolation backward in time to determine how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over the eons.
“A better understanding of the upper atmosphere and the role that escape to space has played is required to plug a major hole in our understanding of Mars,” added Jakosky. “We’re really excited about having the opportunity to address these fundamental science questions. MAVEN is not going to detect life, but it will help us understand the climate history of Mars, which is the history of its habitability.”
At its closest point to the planet, the spacecraft will be 93 miles above the surface, allowing MAVEN to sample the gas and ion composition of the Martian upper atmosphere directly on each orbit. Five “deep dives” are planned to place MAVEN even closer to the surface (77 miles), which will provide information down to the top of the well-mixed lower atmosphere, giving scientists a full profile of the top of the atmosphere. At its highest point MAVEN will be more than 3,728 miles above the surface, allowing for ultraviolet imaging of the entire planet.
“MAVEN is going after something the others haven’t,” said Mitchell. “It’s going to look at the current composition of the upper atmosphere and how solar storms and other factors changed the atmosphere. We’ll then be able to project back in time to see how it was in an earlier epoch. Scientists believe the planet has evolved significantly over the past 4.5 billion years. It had a thicker atmosphere and water flowing on the surface. It was not like Earth, but it was not like it is today.”
MAVEN will join three other NASA spacecraft currently orbiting the Red Planet on their own missions (Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter). Two other vehicles are currently exploring the surface: the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity. All six spacecraft will work to do their own part in piecing together the puzzle of Mars’ history, helping to answer questions about water, habitability, and—ultimately—whether or not life ever had a chance to thrive before the atmosphere withered away and sterilized the planet.
“We’ll never claim success until we are at Mars getting the science data,” added Mitchell. “This really is just the beginning of the journey to get to Mars now. Safe travels MAVEN, we are with you all the way.”
BELOW: The launch of NASA’s $670 million Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission. All photo credits: Alan Walters, John Studwell, Jeffrey Soulliere, and Mike Killian.
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