After a trouble free and fantastic 10-month interplanetary voyage of 442 million miles to the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft is just two days out from its crucial braking burn scheduled for Sept. 21 and insertion into Martian orbit.
MAVEN is NASA’s newest Red Planet orbiter and will investigate Mars transition from its ancient, water-covered past, to the cold, dry, dusty world it has become today.
MAVEN is NASA’s first orbiter specifically dedicated to investigate the Red Planet’s thin upper atmosphere and begin solving the riddles of Mars’ climate mysteries, atmospheric loss, and habitability.
“Where did the water go, and where did the carbon dioxide go from the early atmosphere? What were the mechanisms?” asks Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s Principal Investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“MAVEN is an astrobiology mission,” says Jakosky.
As of today, the MAVEN spacecraft has traveled a total of 705,160,507 kilometers (438,166,425 mi) and completed ~99 percent of its total journey from Earth to Mars.
The do-or-die Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) engine firing starts at 9:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday, Sept. 21.
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“So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in a statement.
“The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion.”
As of Sept. 18, MAVEN was 219,653,220 kilometers (136,486,183 miles) from Earth and only 867,120 km (538,803 mi) from Mars. It is 213,745,975 km (132,815,591 mi) from the Sun. At this distance, from the spacecraft, Mars appears to be nearly the size of the Earth’s moon, or the size of a baseball held 32 feet away.
Currently the one-way light time from MAVEN to Earth is 12 minutes and 13 seconds.
The probe is traveling at an Earth-centered velocity of 29.85 km/s (18.55 mi/s or 66,780 mph) and a Sun-centered velocity of 22.50 km/s (13.98 mi/s or 50,324 mph) as it moves on its heliocentric arc around the Sun.
The orbit-insertion maneuver is a multistep process. First, the probe briefly fires its six small thruster engines to control the spacecraft attitude. Then, the engines will ignite and burn for 33 minutes to slow the craft, allowing it to be pulled into an elliptical orbit with an initial period of 35 hours, according to Mitchell.
Following orbit insertion, MAVEN begins a six-week commissioning phase.
“After we’re in orbit, our focus will be on getting ready for science,” Jakosky told AmericaSpace in an exclusive interview.
“Our commissioning phase, which we are calling ‘transition phase’ takes about six weeks. During that time, we’ll get into our final mapping orbit, deploy our booms, test and calibrate the science instruments, and get ready for science mapping to begin.”
“The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go,” says Jakosky.
“These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.”
MAVEN is designed for a one-Earth-year primary mission to make measurements of the composition, structure, and escape of gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and its interaction with the Sun and solar wind.
It will observe all of Mars’ latitudes at altitudes ranging from periapsis of 93 miles (150 km) to an apoapsis of more than 3,800 miles (6220 km).
MAVEN will execute five deep-dip maneuvers during the first year, descending to an altitude of 78 miles. This marks the lower boundary of the planet’s upper atmosphere.
All of MAVEN’s science instruments were successfully activated by February 2014. Instrument checkouts and calibrations continued along the way.
The 5,400-pound MAVEN probe carries nine sensors in three instrument suites to study why and exactly when did Mars undergo the radical climatic transformation.
“I’m really looking forward to getting to Mars and starting our science!” Jakosky said.
MAVEN soared to space on Nov. 18, 2013, following a flawless blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket and thus began a 10-month interplanetary voyage from Earth to the Red Planet.
It is streaking to Mars along with ISRO’s MOM orbiter, which arrives a few days later, on Sept. 24, 2014.
Both probes remain on course to join Earth’s invasion fleet at Mars, currently comprising three orbiters and two rovers from NASA and ESA.
Scientists from MAVEN, Curiosity, Opportunity, and all the orbiters will work in concert utilizing all the data to elucidate the history of Mars potential for supporting life—past and present.
“MAVEN is another NASA robotic scientific explorer that is paving the way for our journey to Mars,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“Together, robotics and humans will pioneer the Red Planet and the solar system to help answer some of humanity’s fundamental questions about life beyond Earth.”
Stay tuned here for continuing developments regarding Earth’s “Missions to Mars.”
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