NASA’s next spacecraft going to Mars arrived Friday, Aug. 2, at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and is now perched in a cleanroom to begin final preparations for its November launch.
The spacecraft will conduct the first mission dedicated to surveying the upper atmosphere of Mars. Scientists expect to obtain unprecedented data that will help them understand how the loss of atmospheric gas to space may have played a part in changing the planet’s climate.
“We’re excited and proud to ship the spacecraft right on schedule,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “But more critical milestones lie ahead before we accomplish our mission of collecting science data from Mars. I firmly believe the team is up to the task. Now we begin the final push to launch.”
A $20 million remote sensing instrument package built by the University of Colorado Boulder, which is leading a 2013 NASA mission to understand how Mars might have lost its atmosphere, has been delivered to Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colo., for spacecraft integration.
“With the delivery of this package, we are shifting from assembling the basic spacecraft to focusing on getting the science instruments onto the spacecraft,” said Jakosky, also a professor in the geological sciences department. “This is a major step toward getting us to launch and then getting the science return from the mission.”
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere And Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission has passed a critical milestone, Key Decision Point-D or KDP-D. The project is officially authorized to transition into the next phase of the mission, which is system delivery, integration and test, and launch.
“The spacecraft and instruments are all coming together at this point,” said Bruce Jakosky from University of Colorado, the MAVEN principal investigator. “Although we’re focused on getting everything ready for launch right now, we aren’t losing sight of our ultimate objective – getting to Mars and making the science measurements.”
MAVEN will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. The goal of MAVEN is to determine the role that loss of atmospheric gas to space played in changing the Martian climate through time.
Maybe because it appears as a speck of blood in the sky, the planet Mars was named after the Roman god of war. From the point of view of life as we know it, that’s appropriate. The Martian surface is incredibly hostile for life. The Red Planet’s thin atmosphere does little to shield the ground against radiation from the Sun and space. Harsh chemicals, like hydrogen peroxide, permeate the soil. Liquid water, a necessity for life, can’t exist for very long here—any that does not quickly evaporate in the diffuse air will soon freeze out in subzero temperatures common over much of the planet.
It wasn’t always this way. There are signs that in the distant past, billions of years ago, Mars was a much more inviting place. Martian terrain is carved with channels that resemble dry riverbeds. Spacecraft sent to orbit Mars have identified patches of minerals that form only in the presence of liquid water. It appears that in its youth, Mars was a place that could have harbored life, with a thicker atmosphere warm enough for rain that formed lakes or even seas.
Two new NASA missions, one that will roam the surface and another that will orbit the planet and dip briefly into its upper atmosphere, will try to discover what transformed Mars. “The ultimate driver for these missions is the question, did Mars ever have life?” says Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Did microbial life ever originate on Mars, and what happened to it as the planet changed? Did it just go extinct, or did it go underground, where it would be protected from space radiation and temperatures might be warm enough for liquid water?”