An artist's illustration of the manned spacecraft for the Inspiration Mars mission to send two astronauts on a Mars flyby mission in 2017-2018.
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
A nonprofit space exploration group revealed today (Nov. 20) exactly how it plans to launch two married astronauts on an ambitious manned flyby mission to the Red Planet by early 2018, a scenario that would involve NASA and federal funding along with a healthy dose of the pioneering spirit.
The Inspiration Mars project — which is led by multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the world's first space tourist — hopes to partner with NASA, using much of the space agency's equipment and expertise as well as an infusion of federal money to get off the launch pad by early January 2018.
"Perhaps several hundred million dollars in new federal spending can make this mission happen," Inspiration Mars officials wrote in a report, released today, that outlines the mission's proposed architecture. "We now call on our nation’s leaders to seize this singular opportunity to begin human exploration of the solar system and affirm America’s leadership throughout the world." [Private Mission to Mars Explained (Infographic)]
The proposed "Mission for America" would launch a married couple toward the Red Planet sometime between Dec. 25, 2017 and Jan. 5, 2018, to take advantage of a rare favorable alignment of Mars and Earth.
The two astronauts would not land on the Red Planet but would cruise within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of its surface before heading back home, eventually touching down on Earth in May 2019 after spending 501 days in space.
The flyby mission will help inspire the next generation of researchers and engineers, preserving America's competitive edge in science and technology, Inspiration Mars officials say. It should also lay the foundation for even more ambitious manned exploration of the solar system, they add.
"There'll be a lot of science return and technology return," Taber MacCallum, Inspiration Mars' chief technology officer, told reporters during a teleconference today. "We will, I think, sort of break the sound barrier for going to Mars and back, enabling a range of missions to occur in the future."
The current mission plan, as outlined in the report, calls for using NASA's Space Launch System mega-rocket (SLS), which is in development with a first flight slated for late 2017.
The flyby mission would require two launches in quick succession. In the first liftoff, an SLS would loft four payloads to Earth orbit: an SLS upper-stage rocket; a 600-cubic-foot habitat module derived from Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo vessel; a service module that would support the habitat module with power, propulsion and communications systems; and an Earth re-entry pod, which would be based on NASA's Orion capsule.
The second launch — this one likely using a commercial rocket — would deliver the two astronauts to orbit aboard a yet-to-be-selected private spaceship. The crewmembers would then transfer to the habitat module, and the SLS upper stage would propel them on toward Mars.
The married couple would spend virtually the entire mission in the habitat module, transferring to the re-entry pod in the last few hours of the mission.
Inspiration Mars officials acknowledge that making all of this happen will be challenging. The re-entry pod, for example, will have to protect the astronauts from the blazing heat generated when it slams into Earth's atmosphere at about 32,000 mph (51,500 km/h).
But it can be done, and the current plan — which emphasizes the use of technology already proven or in development whenever possible — gives the mission the best chance of success, Inspiration Mars officials say.
"We submit this report with unreserved faith in the men and women of NASA, with a singleminded commitment to surmounting every obstacle, and with complete confidence that this mission can be done," they write in the report.
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