NASA is about to launch the next mission to Mars, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Orbiter (MAVEN), an orbiter which will study the martian atmosphere for signs of climate change.
MAVEN will blast off on an Atlas Five rocket launched from Cape Canaveral tomorrow, November 18. The solar-powered orbiter is as long a school bus and weighs 5,410 pounds. It was built by aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin and will contain instruments developed by NASA and the Universities of Colorado and California. MAVEN will be the 10th orbiter that NASA has launched to Mars, the first being the Mariner 9 in 1971.
MAVEN will orbit Mars and will study the atmosphere for clues as to why it once was teeming with water and why it is now so cold and dry. Billions of years ago the Red Planet had clouds, rain, oceans, lakes, and rivers, but something happened in the last four billion years that changed the potentially habitable planet into the cold barren rock we know today.
“The Martian atmosphere is a critical piece of the puzzle of how Mars works…certainly Mars was born with a different atmosphere than we think we see today,” says Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
MAVEN will arrive at Mars in September 2014 and will enter into elliptical orbit, giving it the opportunity to make dips down into the planet’s upper atmosphere and run ultraviolet imaging. One thing MAVEN hopes to measure is the current rate at which atmospheric gas is lost into space. When this data is extrapolated into the past, we will have a better idea of when and how quickly the universe “sucked up” the martian atmosphere. Mars once had a thick layer of gas that allowed for water on its surface, but now that the air pressure is so low (about 0.6 percent of Earth’s surface pressure) any surface water would quickly evaporate.
MAVEN will also serve as a communications relay between our planet and the two NASA rovers currently cruising around the surface of Mars, the Curiosity and the Opportunity. Currently this function is provided by two NASA orbiters, the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, both of which will be decommissioned in the near future. The Curiosity is currently sampling the atmosphere of Mars from the ground and its findings will work in tandem with MAVEN. The Curiosity has already produced evidence that Mars might have had microbial life billions of years ago.
While NASA’s MAVEN may give researchers a better understanding of martian climate change, it is important to note that it will not be actively seeking signs of life. India has launched its own mission to Mars earlier this month, and will try to detect methane, a potential sign of life.
For a while it seemed like MAVEN would not even be launched. When the House and the Senate were unable to reach an agreement on an emergency spending bill, the federal government was shut down and launch preparations were brought to a halt. NASA was sweating because the launch window closes on December 15 and if they missed it they would have had to wait 26 months until Earth and Mars were in a favorable alignment again. MAVEN was given an emergency exception, giving NASA a green light to launch the orbiter and study martian climate change.
By K. Elsner