Newest Mission to Mars: MAVEN


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.”

Artist depiction of the MAVEN spacecraft.  Credit:  NASA
Artist depiction of the MAVEN spacecraft. Credit: NASA

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 – 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.

More information on MAVEN.

Sources: NASA, UC Boulder

24 Replies to “Newest Mission to Mars: MAVEN”

  1. I cannot believe they are spending so much money in what has all the looks of a re-run or a joke.

    We really need to know what is in those mystery spot with weird shapes spread all over certain parts of the planes totally ignored by NASA recognassaince missions. Don’t tell they do not know there is water in Mars. They can pinpoint methane lakes in Titan and they cannot detect water on Mars? Please have some respect for the general public. NASA has to stop following the patterns of the Orson Wells panic-preventing policies our administrations enforced for years.

    There was intelligent life on Mars. So what? What is the big deal?
    There is water on Mars. So what? What is the big deal?
    There are plenty of dwelling ruins on Mars. So what? What is the big deal?
    There are unusual artifacts spread all over the Martian surface. So what? What is the big deal?

    There will be no riots, no mass suicides — Nothing!

  2. Did Mars have a thick atmosphere billions of years ago? How about anwering “Does it have life NOW ?” How can we spend millions for planetary research and we still can’t answer whether Mars has at least microbial life? We can’t even find organics on Mars even though Sinton observed them spectroscopically over 40 years ago. Finding life on Mars or proving once and for all it’s sterile is by far the most important place to spend space dollars.

    Defenders of the status quo, please chime in.

  3. Jesus Ralph – chill out. Your rant makes so little sense that reading it instantly gave me vertigo and a blinding headache.

    And TD – I’ll defend the status quo for you, oh valiant advocate of reform and accountability in the space exploration industry!

    If you can’t see the connection between the geologic and atmospheric history of Mars and the possibility of finding life (past or present) on Mars, then you have not the slightest clue of what you’re talking about. We have technology on and around Mars that is astounding in its capability – slowly chipping away at these tough questions to build a complete picture of our neighboring planet, including answering the question of life, and all you can muster is a ‘hurry up’?!

    You talk about it all as if we should just get our s**t together, kill all of the other missions off and just go and find some life already, as if NASA scientists wouldn’t love to be able to just throw a mission together and go and dig up some microbes on Mars… You seem to think that because Sinton saw some vague C-H absorption lines in his telescope 40 years ago, it should be a piece of piss to just march in there and get what we need, if only the bureaucratic NASA types would just see reason!

    You have to be kidding.

  4. Of the Nine planets (yes, Pluto is a planet), Mars is the most boring…yet we have an endless budget to send probes there (of which, only half reach it). Yawn.

  5. Thanks, astro….you didn’t let me down. Maybe Slipher, Kuiper, Sinton, deVaucouleurs, Dollfus, Vishniac, and a dozen others expected more by 2008. But go ahead. Keep “chipping away” to learn more about the history of Mars a billion years ago. Don’t follow up on the observations of organic compounds from 40 years ago or on the observations of methane 4 years ago. Please continue with the status quo efforts – we find them very entertaining.

  6. Maven looks to be a very good mission, and if it can help unlock the puzzle of why Mars atmosphere is no longer thick, a great mission.

    Get your Christmas shopping done early in 2012. When the crazies wake up on Dec. 22 to find the world still here, the stores are going to be packed!

  7. It is costing way too much money to find out what Mars looked like a billion years ago. Yes it would help us get a better picture of our immediate cosmic surroundings, but at these expenses do you think it makes that strong a case (I doubt it!).
    I would actually feel better if we stopped beating around the bush and pooled all our assets into one big pile and sent a series of manned missions beyond the moon not necessarily to Mars but just beyond the moon.

  8. The Earth has one thing that Mars doesn’t – a moon large enough to stabilize its axis of rotation over a span of billions of years. (Not to mention the tidal effects and protection from space debris it has provided.) I just can’t help but feel this has been a significant factor in not just the evolution of life but in its genesis as well. I could be wrong, of course. But I have a hunch that our prospects for finding life on other worlds will go way up if there is a moon comparable to ours present.

  9. You have to love the close minded. Who are unable to take a 5 minute break from the craziness which seems to lurk around their heads to really think.

    Our recent missions to Mars have been all about digging, drilling, scraping etc on the surface. We’ve found water, yet no life. Does that mean there isn’t life… no? However, you cannot just keep sending up robots in ad hoc style hoping you find the few spots they may be.

    One thing we haven’t really accomplished is to study the atmosphere.
    TD you want to know about organic compounds like methane and microbial life? If it exists, they both will be in the atmosphere. In fact, its a lot more likely to find both flying in the atmosphere than it will be taking pot shots at various locations. Apparently you believe we have some highly detailed geographic maps of the sub-layers of Mars. Guess what…we don’t; certainly not to the same detail we have of Earth.

    Studying the atmosphere can give us a clue to how long ago Mars may have had an atmosphere; which clues us into things like (in simple terms) “How deep we may have to dig” to find certain things.
    NASA would also like to send craft which move around Mars by “flying” or “floating”; thus allowing them to cover much greater area in shorter amount of time; sort of need atmospheric data for this, dont you think?
    And although I could give a 2 hour lecture, I’ll point out one more thing… looking for answers to the questions which have been brought up about the Martian atmosphere from the recent data we received from our 3 current probes there.

    Now, while your narrow minded interest is in dirt and mud; there are many other things to science, and many other answers to find. Sticking to just one item would be…well… narrow minded.

  10. One has to love crackpot logic.

    There was methane found in the atmosphere a few years ago. So what should we do? Get rid of that stupid mission designed to study… the atmosphere.


  11. Sorry – is there methane in the atmosphere of Mars or not? Phoenix was supposed to have done an atmospheric composition analysis and we haven’t heard any results yet. How can that still be a mystery after 40 years? But go ahead and send a probe to study what the martian atmopshere was like a billion years ago. Collect your paychecks and pat yourselves on the back. Hopefully whatever you are defending is worth the loss of the trust that the public currently gives you.

  12. Understanding the environment of Earth orbit billions of years ago is quite important if we ever want to know, how life has started.

    On Earth that’s very difficult, because of weather, plate tectonics and most importantly, life itself.

  13. TD,
    Well, I do admire your tenacity. But give it up, dude. Admit you just didn’t have a clue. Read the mission abstract (it takes about .2 seconds to find using the popular search engine). There is nothing “status quo” about the mission. The only thing “status quo” is your commitment to a very, very, very, very bad (not to mention wrong) idea. What is status quo about arriving closer to the truth? And for that matter, what is status quo about supporting a lot of talented men and women, all of whom I suspect have spent a lot of time studying Mars?

  14. People love to get personal, but they incapable of providing us with a clean cut, straight forward answer from all these vain experiments with no end in sight.

    NASA has the best unblurring applications and computers, why then all the give to the public are blurry, dark, small pictures of questioned places?

    What stops NASA from publishing HD pictures of the places which look full of artifacts or other questionable places?

    Instead of going for the neck of those who question this odd behavior, some reader should ask those questions until we get answers.

  15. Was there ever a thick atmosphere around mars?!? Mars doesn’t have the gravity to support a thick atmosphere – unless Mars weighed more in the past, or the atmosphere was composed of heavier gases like argon or something.

    I know everyone wants Mars to be as much like Earth as possible but we really have to take it as it is. If mars supports/supported life it will have to do so with a thin atmosphere… and why not?

  16. The reason why people should go to the neck to the crackpots that question the so-called “odd behaviour” is because the claim that NASA (and ESA) does not publishphotos of “questionable” places in the best definition available is an outright lie. Cydonia is debunked for years and years precisely due to those photos, and yet there are still idiots claiming the “face of Mars” to be real.

    Crackpots couldn’t care less about facts. Their delusional minds just know there are “artifacts”, and the fact that there are no artifacts in any photos isn’t a sign that the artifacts aren’t there: it’s a sign that NASA is covering up. Typical childish behaviour. They want the artifacts, and since they don’t get what they want, they throw a tantrum.

    Grow up.

    And learn something about how space cameras work, about how higher definition relates with the size of the field of view in every photo, about how long it takes to cover a whole planet in any given scale, about pareidoilia (spelling?), in sum, about reality.

  17. Thump, yes, there should have been a thick atmosphere around Mars. You need a thick atmosphere to be able to have liquid water flowing on the surface; if you don’t have enough pressure to keep the water liquid, it just sublimates and goes from ice directly to gas. And since there is ample evidence for liquid water flow in the past of Mars, a thick atmosphere must have existed.

    Mars is a bit to the small side, but it isn’t too small to have a thick atmosphere. Proof of that is Titan, which is smaller than Mars and yet its atmosphere is thicker than the Earth’s.

    It all depends on a balance between the amount of the so-called “volatiles” available in the planet, the planet’s mass (therefore gravity) and the temperature range it shows (and a few more exotic things, like how strong is the planet’s magnetic field and if it exists at all).

    Besides, all planets lose atmosphere. The Earth is losing its atmosphere. Luckily for us, that loss is veeeery slow, and is probably compensated by new material falling in from interplanetary space. In the case of Mars, we still don’t know how and when did Mars lose its atmosphere, and that’s what the measurement of today’s atmospheric loss will try to determine.

  18. David R. I didn’t mean to rock the boat. I’m all for science and probes to Mars to study any aspect. I’m just extremely dissappointed that the search for life on Mars – even microbial life – doesn’t get more attention. This question has been unanswered for so long, and none of us live forever. It was a burning question at the dawn of the space age – and then it disappeared. It makes one wonder why.

  19. I remember seeing something on TV the other night about Mars losing its atmosphere. It seems there were two factors. One was that, as the core of Mars cooled, it lost its magnetic field and allowed the solar wind access to the atmosphere. The other was also related to cooling. The gases that were being lost to space we no longer being replenished by volcanism.
    Made sense to me.

  20. @TD

    I think that a combination of research will answer that question, including this latest mission. While the folks doing the research haven’t necessarily addressed the question you raise head-on, they have produced substantial implicit evidence…e.g., chemistry features of the soil, date re: the atmosphere, geologic history, etc.

    I share your sentiment. I would like to see more direct research…but I also realize that the approach to reasearching a planet is very much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Every mission produces evidence that will lead to larger conclusions. If you get a chance, get your hands on some of the NASA/JPL-produced documentaries of the Voyager missions. It really puts things in perspective…and might give you some counterbalance to your frustrations re: Mars research.

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