Probing Mars

Yesterday, November 18, 2013, NASA launched its unmanned MAVEN spacecraft at 1:28 P.M. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 53 minutes after launch, MAVEN broke away from the second stage of its Atlas V Centaur rocket and deployed its solar arrays, which will continue to power the spacecraft for the next ten months as it makes its way to Mars, where it will orbit the planet and collect atmospheric data.

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Yesterday’s MAVEN launch at Cape Canaveral (Source: http://www.space.com)

The goal of the MAVEN mission is to characterize the atmospheric changes that have shaped Mars’ climate history. NASA, along with its many collaborators, is looking to explain how Mars became the vast, frozen desert it is today, having once been a much warmer and even wetter planet. This atmospheric transformation is thought to have occurred billions of years ago, but studying Mars’ current atmospheric composition will hopefully help us understand how such a dramatic change took place, and what the planet may have looked like before and during this remarkable climatic shift.

MAVEN is only one part of a series of missions gathering data on the red planet, working towards the first manned missions to Mars, projected to begin sometime in the 2030s, according to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, speaking in NASA’s press release. Mars has long been seen as the next logical step in human exploration of the solar system, and with MAVEN, NASA moves one step closer to setting foot on its rust colored soils.

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Workers at Lockheed Martin assembling the propellant tank for MAVEN (Source: http://www.lockheedmartin.com)

The MAVEN spacecraft itself represents a remarkable collaboration between a number of different institutions, including NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Colorado, Boulder, the University of California, Berkeley, the Lockheed Martin Corporation, and even the Centre d’Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements in Toulouse, France, all of whom contributed some piece of hardware to the spacecraft’s remarkable array of scientific equipment or is helping to navigate and support MAVEN’s flight.

According to the University of Colorado’s MAVEN webpage, the unmanned probe has eight sensors on board:

A magnetometer – for measuring magnetic fields.

A neutral gas and ion mass spectrometer – to measure the composition and isotopes of atmospheric thermal particles, both neutral and ionic.

A Langmuir probe and waves – which establishes ionospheric properties, heating patterns in the atmosphere, and the sun’s impact on atmospheric conditions.

An imaging ultraviolet spectrometer – which measures global changes to the atmosphere.

A solar wind electron analyzer – to measure both solar wind and ionospheric electrons.

A solar wind ion analyzer – which also measures solar wind, but looks at the characteristics of ions in the planet’s magnetosheath, an area where a planet’s magnetic fields are altered due to interactions with solar energy.

Solar energetic particles – an instrument that studies the effects of the solar particles which give it its name.

SupraThermal and thermal ion composition sensors – which monitors and measures thermal ions.

We still have ten months until MAVEN begins its work and we can start to unravel the complex history of Mars’ atmosphere, but given the possibility it represents of a future with manned missions to Mars, the wait should be well worth it.

Press release:

http://www.nasa.gov/press/2013/november/nasa-launches-mission-to-study-upper-atmosphere-of-mars/#.UouHpMRwqSo

MAVEN page:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/maven/overview/index.html#.UouJIcRwqSo

University of Colorado info on the equipment:

http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven/science/instrument-package/

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