NASA's next mission to Mars will do one specific thing -- it will analyze the red planet's atmosphere in an effort to peel back the mystery of its evolution and try to understand why it thinned out so drastically, turning a once wet world into a barren wasteland. The $671 million Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, which is scheduled for launch at 1:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 18, is a Martian climate change probe capable of making unprecedented observations of the planet's atmosphere. It will even, on occasion, swoop low to directly sample the tenuous upper atmospheric gases. MAVEN is the latest in a series of Mars missions that are piecing together Mars' water history, organic chemistry and past and present habitability. Shown here, MAVEN sits atop an Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., before launch on Monday afternoon.NEWS: Mars Probe to Study How Planet Lost Its Water
After launch, MAVEN will take 10 months to reach its destination, arriving in Mars orbit on Sept. 22, 2014. NASA's previous Mars mission -- the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover -- took only 8 months to reach Gale Crater, arriving on Aug. 6, 2012. Interestingly, MAVEN isn't the only orbiter with a planned rendezvous in September 2014. The Indian Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which launched on Nov. 5, is scheduled to arrive at Mars two days after MAVEN, on Sept. 24, 2014. Mangalyaan is taking a little longer to get to Mars due to its series of Earth flybys that have gradually increased its speed and orbital distance, eventually propelling it Mars-wards.NEWS: Liftoff! India's First Mars Probe Launches
When it arrives in Mars orbit, MAVEN will be the beefiest satellite in the current Mars orbiter fleet; NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), NASA's Odyssey and Europe's Mars Express are all lightweights in comparison. MAVEN (the spacecraft plus propellents) weighs 2,550 kilograms (5,620 pounds) at launch. In comparison, the MRO was 2,180 kilograms (4,810 lb), Odyssey was 376 kilograms (829 lb) and Mars Express was 1,123 kg (2,476 lb) at launch. The ISRO's Mangalyaan spacecraft has a launch mass of 1,337 kg (2,948 lb). In addition to its impressive mass, MAVEN has a "wingspan" (from one end of deployed solar panels to the other) of 11.4 meters (37.5 feet).PHOTOS: The Psychedelic Landscape of Mars
Once encircling Mars, MAVEN will have a rather extreme orbit. At closest approach (perapsis), MAVEN will zoom within 150 kilometers (93 miles) of the Martian surface. But due to its planned highly elliptical orbit, the satellite will fly out to a maximum distance (apsis) of 6,000 km (3,728 miles). On 5 occasions during its primary mission, MAVEN will drop even lower on close approach, coming to within 124 km (77 miles) of the surface. On those occasions, MAVEN will be able to directly sample some of the upper atmospheric gases and analyze them.PHOTOS: Top 10 Weirdest Mars Illusions and Pareidolia
What happened to Mars? Evidence is piling up that the red planet used to have more in common with Earth in its early history. We know that large bodies of water used to persist across what are now barren, dry plains. Rivers even used to flow, eroding Mars rock into pebbles. The puzzle of Mars' predominantly dry appearance can be blamed on its atmosphere -- an atmosphere with a pressure of 1 percent that of Earth's. What atmospheric processes caused Mars to lose its water? MAVEN will take on this challenge to try to understand whether the atmosphere was vented into space naturally; if the water was lost through atmospheric processes or is currently locked in the Martian crust; and try to understand the interplay between the sun's ferocious solar wind and Mars' upper atmosphere.NEWS: Water Discovery Is Good News for Mars Colonists
MAVEN is carrying 8 sophisticated instruments all designed to tackle every aspect of Mars' climate history and how the planet's atmosphere interacts with interplanetary space. MAVEN's suite of instrumentation will: directly sample atmospheric gases; spectroscopically analyze the atmospheric composition; measure the planet's magnetic field and the interplanetary magnetic field; detect the interaction of energetic solar particles with atmospheric gases; and analyze ionospheric heating. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) package will be used to measure the isotopes of atmospheric gases. These data, in turn, will be compared with the Mars Science Laboratory's isotopic analyses, aiding a better understanding of how much of the atmosphere has been lost over time.NEWS: Mars' Once Thick Atmosphere Now Kaput
Sadly, due to budget constraints, MAVEN does not have an instrument to detect atmospheric methane. Other missions have detected trace amounts of the organic compound that may or may not be linked with microbial life on Mars. Most recently, Curiosity was used to "sniff" the air around Gale Crater for any sign of the gas -- it detected none, only adding to the mystery surrounding Mars' methane mystery.NEWS: Mystery of Mars' Missing Methane Deepens
The current Mars orbiters aren't only carrying out science; they also form an essential relay network for communications between Earth and NASA's rover missions (and future surface missions). MAVEN is packing a powerful Electra radio system that will contribute to the communications between Curiosity, Opportunity and mission control, allowing a data transfer rate of up to 10Mbps.
Mars Probe to Study How Planet Lost Its Water by Irene Klotz
NASA MAVEN Fact Sheet
One is a six-wheeled nuclear-powered rover, the other is an orbiting solar-powered climate satellite. The two robots couldn’t be more different — except they have one thing in common: Mars’ blighted atmosphere. And on Sept. 20, 2014, the pair will become the next interplanetary “power couple.”
NASA’s six-wheeled Curiosity rover, which began exploring Mars dirt on Aug. 6, 2012, will soon be joined by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite that is due for launch at 1:28 p.m. EST today (Monday). Although at least 77 miles will separate them when MAVEN orbits overhead next year, both missions will find some common ground in their study of the thin Martian atmosphere.
Earlier this year, Curiosity used its instruments to analyze a sample of air from its location inside Gale Crater. The analysis of various atmospheric gases and their isotopes revealed that the Martian atmosphere likely underwent rapid changes some 4 billion years ago and that lighter isotopes in the atmosphere had been preferentially lost to space. Before that time, Mars was a very different place; it had a thick atmosphere and vast bodies of flowing liquid water — a habitable condition believed to be very conducive to basic lifeforms.
The assumption is that the loss of the Martian atmosphere was likely triggered around a time when there were many planetary impacts by comets and asteroids — a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. A massive impact may have caused critical damage to Mars’ internal dynamo, “switching off” its global magnetic field. The impact may have also blasted huge quantities of atmospheric gases into space. With no magnetic field to act as a force field against the sun’s continuous barrage of energetic particles, over time the remaining Martian atmosphere was literally stripped into space.
Another atmospheric loss mechanism assumes that due to Mars’ low mass, neutral particles in the atmosphere required less speed to escape the planet’s gravity. As gas particles collide and get kicked to higher velocities, they get booted into space, never to return. These atmospheric loss processes are linked with Mars water history; as the atmosphere became thinner, water was frozen into the crust and also lost to space.
So, taking a lead from Curiosity’s ground level isotopic analysis, MAVEN will swoop in and begin a planet-wide survey of Mars for a one-year primary mission (although mission managers hope MAVEN will continue to operate for many years after that), piecing together the complex puzzle of the Martian atmosphere from orbit. By taking isotope samples and understanding the interaction with the sun’s solar wind and magnetic field, a history of atmospheric loss can be examined, hopefully creating a picture of what has blighted Mars for the last few billions of years.
MAVEN will also form a very intimate link with Curiosity. Carrying a sophisticated radio transmitter, the orbiter can act as a communications relay between Earth and the Martian surface. Currently, that job is being carried out by NASA’s two veteran satellites, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — missions that arrived at Mars in 2001 and 2006 respectively. MAVEN will provide a critical link to rovers Curiosity and Opportunity should the older orbiters fail.
But like all good robotic pairings, the partnership wont be embedded in our psyche until one robot photographs the other. But in the case of MAVEN, it doesn’t have the photography capabilities of its sister orbiters, so don’t expect any orbital beauty shots of Curiosity from MAVEN looking down. It will actually be Curiosity that will have the photo op, looking up.
As the video below shows, there will be points in MAVEN’s mission where its orbit will fly straight over Gale Crater. Should the lighting be just right, at Mars dusk, Curiosity should be able to image the orbiter as it passes overhead.
So as we look forward to the launch of MAVEN from Cape Canaveral, Fla., later today, remember that it will soon be joining three other orbiters and two active rovers that are all working to assemble the puzzle of he red planet’s history and its potential for habitability — from the cores of rocks to the uppermost regions of the atmosphere.
Video/image credit: NASA