Did Mars once have a thick atmosphere? Could the climate on the Red Planet have supported water and possibly life in the past? These are the questions NASA hopes to answer in great detail with the newest orbiter mission to Mars. Called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft, the $485 million mission is scheduled for launch in late 2013. MAVEN is part of the Mars Scout Program, which is designed to send a series of small, low-cost, principal investigator-led missions to the Red Planet. The Phoenix Mars Lander was the first spacecraft selected in this program. “This mission will provide the first direct measurements ever taken to address key scientific questions about Mars’ evolution,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Evidence from orbit and the planet’s surface points to a once denser atmosphere on Mars that supported the presence of liquid water on the surface. As part of a dramatic climate change, most of the Martian atmosphere was lost. MAVEN will make definitive scientific measurements of present-day atmospheric loss that will offer clues about the planet’s history.
“The loss of Mars’ atmosphere has been an ongoing mystery,” McCuistion said. “MAVEN will help us solve it.”
The science team will be led from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and its Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The principal investigator for the mission is Bruce Jakosky from UC Boulder. “We are absolutely thrilled about this announcement,” said Jakosky. “We have an outstanding mission that will obtain fundamental science results for Mars. We have a great team and we are ready to go.”
Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo., will build the spacecraft based on designs from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and 2001 Mars Odyssey missions.
MAVEN was evaluated to have the best science value and lowest implementation risk from 20 mission investigation proposals submitted in response to a NASA Announcement of Opportunity in August 2006.
After arriving at Mars in the fall of 2014, MAVEN will use its propulsion system to enter an elliptical orbit ranging 90 to 3,870 miles above the planet. The spacecraft’s eight science instruments will take measurements during a full Earth year, which is roughly equivalent to half of a Martian year.
MAVEN’s instrument suites include a remote sensing package that will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere, and the spacecraft will dip to an altitude of 80 miles above the planet. A particles and fields payload contains six instruments that will characterize the solar wind, upper atmosphere and the ionosphere â€“ a layer of charged particles very high in the Martian atmosphere.
The third instrument suite, a Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer will measure the composition and isotopes of neutral and charged forms of gases in the Martian atmosphere
During and after its primary science mission, the spacecraft may be used to provide communications relay support for robotic missions on the Martian surface.