The Mars Curiosity rover will have a visitor next fall in the form of MAVEN—the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN. Unlike its ground-based, 6-legged friend, however, MAVEN will orbit the red planet and use some high-tech equipment to help scientists uncover a long-standing mystery: what happened to the Martian atmosphere?
As I write this article, MAVEN is undergoing final preparations at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center for a planned November 18 launch. In the coming days, the 5,410-pound spacecraft will be loaded onto an Atlas V 401 rocket and blasted into space for a 10-month journey. When it arrives at Mars in September 2014, MAVEN will settle into an elliptical orbit and perform 5 “deep dips” into the atmosphere during the primary mission phase.
So what is this intrepid spacecraft looking for, exactly? NASA current’s theme for exploring Mars is “follow the water,” and understanding the loss of water and carbon dioxide—both into the planet’s crust and into space—are key pieces in understanding the planet’s past habitability. Our best guess right now is that some time in the planet’s ancient history—about 4 billion years ago—the Martian magnetic field “switched off,” allowing solar wind and UV radiation to strip much of the atmosphere. How Mars’ atmospheric gases were lost to space is the primary focus of the MAVEN mission—specifically the state of the upper atmosphere and today’s rates of loss into space.
As I said, MAVEN is carrying three instrument suites, including the Particles and Fields Package (PFP), the Remote Sensing Package, and the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS). Strangely enough, what MAVEN is lacking is cameras. This might seem strange at first, but by not including cameras it can focus on its primary mission goals with the right tools for the job. And there are other spacecraft, like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, that are taking awesomely detailed images of the Martian surface.
Mars continues to fascinate and inspire us. Hopefully MAVEN will help us unlock some of the red planet’s mysteries, and, with its roving buddy on the surface, help us finally learn what happened to the water.
Written by Kyle Sater, senior educator at the Adler Planetarium.