Around four billion years ago Mars had an atmosphere thick enough to sustain liquid water on the planet’s surface; a critical component for life. Today, the atmosphere is all but gone - as is the water. What happened to cause such a drastic change? NASA hopes to find out. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter will launch today, November 18, and will begin its science mission when it reaches the red planet in September 2014.
MAVEN launched at 1:28 EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Due to weather, there were some concerns that the launch would not proceed as planned. If MAVEN had not gotten off the ground during the 20 day launch window, NASA would not be able to try again until 2016 when the planets will once again be so favorably aligned. The MAVEN mission was exempted from the US government shutdown in October due to the precise launch time required. MAVEN launched via an Atlas V rocket. Currently, MAVEN has deployed the solar arrays that will power it on the journey to Mars.
Using eight sensors in three categories, MAVEN will explore the upper atmosphere and ionosphere of Mars. The Particles and Fields Package is composed of six sensors to explore how solar activity affects the atmosphere. Those sensors are Solar Wind Electron Analyzer, Solar Wind Ion Analyzer, Suprathermal and Thermal Ion Composition, Solar Energetic Particle, Langmuir Probe and Waves, and the Magnetometer. The Remote Sensing Package consists of the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph and will characterize the atmosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer will distinguish the atmospheric neutral ions and identify any isotopes that may be present.
Also onboard MAVEN is a DVD that represents a very successful public outreach endeavor. A poetry contest had over 12,000 submissions for haikus about Mars. Over 1,100 of those received at least two votes and will be included on the DVD. There is also a list of over 100,000 names of MAVEN supporters. The DVD’s label was the 1st place winner of the student artwork competition. A Kindergarten class collectively won the honor, though images of all of the 377 submissions will also be included on the DVD.
MAVEN was manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The solar-powered spacecraft is 37.5 feet (11.4 meters) long and currently weighs 5622 pounds (2550 kilograms) as it is fueled for launch. Its antenna will allow it to transmit back to Earth twice a week during its 1-Earth-year-long primary science mission from Mars. During its mission, it will orbit Mars elliptically, ranging from 93 miles (150 km) to 3728 miles (6000 km) from the surface. Five times throughout the mission, MAVEN will perform a “deep dip” and travel only 77 miles (125 km) off the surface to collect information about the lower atmosphere of Mars.
After MAVEN is launched, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California will be responsible for navigation and communication transmission. Overall mission management comes from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which is a first for that facility. The principal investigator for the MAVEN mission is Dr. Bruce Jakosky. Jakosky comes from the University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (UC/LASP) which made several of the sensory instruments.