MAVEN Mars Orbiter Ideally Poised to Uniquely Map Comet Siding Spring Composition – Exclusive Interview with Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky

MAVEN to conduct up close observations of Comet Siding Spring during Oct. 2014
MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars Orbiter and will investigate how the planet lost most of its atmosphere and water over time. Credit: NASA
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NASA’s MAVEN Mars Orbiter is “ideally” instrumented to uniquely “map the composition of Comet Siding Spring” in great detail when it streaks past the Red Planet during an extremely close flyby on Oct. 19, 2014 – thereby providing a totally “unexpected science opportunity … and a before and after look at Mars atmosphere,” Prof. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s Principal Investigator of CU-Boulder, CO, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview.

The probes state-of-the-art ultraviolet spectrograph will be the key instrument making the one-of-a-kind compositional observations of this Oort cloud comet making its first passage through the inner solar system on its millions year orbital journey.

“MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) is the ideal way to observe the comet coma and tail,” Jakosky explained.

“The IUVS can do spectroscopy that will allow derivation of compositional information.”

“It will do imaging of the entire coma and tail, allowing mapping of composition.”

Comet: Siding Spring. The images above show -- before and after filtering -- comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.  Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)
Comet: Siding Spring
The images above show — before and after filtering — comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

Moreover the UV spectrometer is the only one of its kind amongst NASA’s trio of Martian orbiters making its investigations completely unique.

“IUVS is the only ultraviolet spectrometer that will be observing the comet close up, and that gives the detailed compositional information,” Jakosky elaborated

And MAVEN, or the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, is arriving just in the nick of time to fortuitously capture this fantastically rich data set of a pristine remnant from the solar system’s formation.

The spacecraft reaches Mars in less than 15 days. It will rendezvous with the Red Planet on Sept. 21 after a 10 month interplanetary journey from Earth.

Furthermore, since MAVEN’s purpose is the first ever detailed study of Mars upper atmosphere, it will get a before and after look at atmospheric changes.

“We’ll take advantage of this unexpected science opportunity to make observations both of the comet and of the Mars upper atmosphere before and after the comet passage – to look for any changes,” Jakosky stated.

How do MAVEN’s observations compare to NASA’s other orbiters Mars Odyssey (MO) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I asked?

“The data from the other orbiters will be complementary to the data from IUVS.”

“Visible light imaging from the other orbiters provides data on the structure of dust in the coma and tail. And infrared imaging provides information on the dust size distribution.”

IUVS is one of MAVENS’s nine science sensors in three instrument suites targeted to study why and exactly when did Mars undergo the radical climatic transformation.

How long will MAVEN make observations of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring?

“We’ll be using IUVS to look at the comet itself, about 2 days before comet nucleus closest approach.”

“In addition, for about two days before and two days after nucleus closest approach, we’ll be using one of our “canned” sequences to observe the upper atmosphere and solar-wind interactions.”

“This will give us a detailed look at the upper atmosphere both before and after the comet, allowing us to look for differences.”

Describe the risk that Comet Siding Spring poses to MAVEN, and the timing?

“We have the encounter with Comet Siding Spring about 2/3 of the way through the commissioning phase we call transition.”

“We think that the risk to the spacecraft from comet dust is minimal, but we’ll be taking steps to reduce the risk even further so that we can move on toward our science mission.”

“Throughout this entire period, though, spacecraft and instrument health and safety come first.”

This graphic depicts the orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. On Oct. 19, 2014 the comet will have a very close pass at Mars. Its nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers).   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This graphic depicts the orbit of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring as it swings around the sun in 2014. On Oct. 19, 2014 the comet will have a very close pass at Mars. Its nucleus will miss Mars by about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s your overall hope and expectation from the comet encounter?

“Together [with the other orbiters], I’m hoping it will all provide quite a data set!

“From Mars, the comet truly will fill the sky!” Jakosky gushed.

The comet’s nucleus will fly by Mars at a distance of only about 82,000 miles (132,000 kilometers) at 2:28 p.m. ET (18:28 GMT) on Oct. 19, 2014. That’s barely 1/3 the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

What’s the spacecraft status today?

“Everything is on track.”

Maven spacecraft trajectory to Mars. Credit: NASA
Maven spacecraft trajectory to Mars on Sept. 4, 2014. Credit: NASA

The $671 Million MAVEN spacecraft’s goal is to study Mars upper atmosphere to explore how the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere and water over billions of years and the transition from its ancient, water-covered past, to the cold, dry, dusty world that it has become today.

MAVEN soared to space over nine months ago on Nov. 18, 2013 following a flawless blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket and thus began a 10 month interplanetary voyage from Earth to the Red Planet.

It is streaking to Mars along with ISRO’s MOM orbiter, which arrives a few days later on September 24, 2014.

So far it has traveled 95% of the distance to the Red Planet, amounting to over 678,070,879 km (421,332,902 mi).

As of Sept. 4, MAVEN was 205,304,736 km (127,570,449 miles) from Earth and 4,705,429 km (2,923,818 mi) from Mars. Its Earth-centered velocity is 27.95 km/s (17.37 mi/s or 62,532 mph) and Sun-centered velocity is 22.29 km/s (13.58 mi/s or 48,892 mph) as it moves on its heliocentric arc around the Sun.

One-way light time from MAVEN to Earth is 11 minutes and 24 seconds.

MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and launched on Nov. 18, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars and observing Comet Siding Spring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and launched on Nov. 18, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars and observing Comet Siding Spring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MAVEN, MOM, Rosetta, Opportunity, Curiosity, Mars rover and more Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launches to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Mars Armada Resumes Contact with NASA – Ready to Rock ‘n Roll n’ Drill

Curiosity accomplished historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182), shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169) – back dropped with Mount Sharp – where the robot is currently working. Curiosity will bore a 2nd drill hole soon following the resumption of contact with the end of the solar conjunction period. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
See drill hole and conjunction videos below[/caption]

After taking a well deserved and unavoidable break during April’s solar conjunction with Mars that blocked two way communication with Earth, NASA’s powerful Martian fleet of orbiters and rovers have reestablished contact and are alive and well and ready to Rock ‘n Roll ‘n Drill.

“Both orbiters and both rovers are in good health after conjunction,” said NASA JPL spokesman Guy Webster exclusively to Universe Today.

Curiosity’s Chief Scientist John Grotzinger confirmed to me today (May 1) that further drilling around the site of the initial John Klein outcrop bore hole is a top near term priority.

The goal is to search for the chemical ingredients of life.

“We’ll drill a second sample,” Grotzinger told Universe Today exclusively. Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., leads NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory mission.

“We’ll move a small bit, either with the arm or the wheels, and then drill another hole to confirm what we found in the John Klein hole.”

Earth, Mars and the Sun have been lined up in nearly a straight line for the past several weeks, which effectively blocked virtually all contact with NASA’s four pronged investigative Armada at the Red Planet.

NASA’s Red Planet fleet consists of the Curiosity (MSL) and Opportunity (MER) surface rovers as well as the long lived Mars Odyssey (MO) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) robotic orbiters circling overhead. ESA’s Mars Express orbiter is also exploring the Red Planet.

“All have been in communications,” Webster told me today, May 1.

The NASA spacecraft are functioning normally and beginning to transmit the science data collected and stored in on board memory during the conjunction period when a commanding moratorium was in effect.

“Lots of data that had been stored on MRO during conjunction has been downlinked,” Webster confirmed to Universe Today.

Curiosity and Mount Sharp: Curiosity's elevated robotic arm and drill are staring back at you - back dropped by Mount Sharp, her ultimate destination.  The rover team anticipates new science discoveries following the resumption of contact with NASA after the end of solar conjunction.  This panoramic vista of Yellowknife Bay basin was snapped on March 23, Sol 223 prior to conjunction and assembled from several dozen raw images snapped by the rover's navigation camera system.  These images were snapped after the robot recovered from a computer glitch in late Feb and indicated she was back alive and functioning working normally. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).
Curiosity and Mount Sharp: Curiosity’s elevated robotic arm and drill stare back at you at the John Klein drill site – back dropped by mysterious Mount Sharp. The rover has resumed contact with NASA following the end of solar conjunction. This panoramic vista was snapped on March 23, 2013, Sol 223. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com)

And NASA is already transmitting and issuing new marching orders to the Martian Armada to resume their investigations into unveiling the mysteries of the Red Planet and determine whether life ever existed eons ago or today.

“New commanding, post-conjunction has been sent to both orbiters and Opportunity.”

“And the sequence is being developed today for sending to Curiosity tonight (May 1), as scheduled more than a month ago,” Webster explained.

“We’ll spend the next few sols transitioning over to new flight software that gives the rover additional capabilities,” said Grotzinger.

“After that we’ll spend some time testing out the science instruments on the B-side rover compute element – that we booted to before conjunction.”

Curiosity is at work inside the Yellowknife Bay basin just south of the Martian equator. Opportunity is exploring the rim of Endeavour crater at the Cape York rim segment.

Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years and 3200 Sols on Mars snapping this panoramic view from her current location on ‘Matijevic Hill’ at Endeavour Crater. The rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013). “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years and 3200 Sols on Mars snapping this panoramic view from her current location on ‘Matijevic Hill’ at Endeavour Crater. The rover discovered phyllosilicate clay minerals and calcium sulfate veins at the bright outcrops of ‘Whitewater Lake’, at right, imaged by the Navcam camera on Sol 3197 (Jan. 20, 2013). “Copper Cliff” is the dark outcrop, at top center. Darker “Kirkwood” outcrop, at left, is site of mysterious “newberries” concretions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Mars Solar Conjunction is a normal celestial event that occurs naturally about every 26 months. The science and engineering teams take painstaking preparatory efforts to insure no harm comes to the spacecraft during the conjunction period when they have no chance to assess or intervene in case problems arise.

So it’s great news and a huge relief to the large science and operations teams handling NASA’s Martian assets to learn that all is well.

Since the sun can disrupt and garble communications, mission controllers suspended transmissions and commands so as not to inadvertently create serious problems that could damage the fleet in a worst case scenario.

So what’s on tap for Curiosity and Opportunity in the near term ?

“For the first few days for Curiosity we will be installing a software upgrade.”

“For both rovers, the science teams will be making decisions about how much more to do at current locations before moving on,” Webster told me.

The Opportunity science team has said that the long lived robot has pretty much finished investigating the Cape York area at Endeavour crater where she made the fantastic discovery of phyllosilicates clay minerals that form in neutral water.

Signals from Opportunity received a few days ago on April 27 indicated that the robot had briefly entered a standby auto mode while collecting imagery of the sun.

NASA reported today that all operations with Opportunity was “back under ground control, executing a sequence of commands sent by the rover team”, had returned to normal and the robot exited the precautionary status.

Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years on Mars snapping this panoramic view of the vast expanse of 14 mile (22 km) wide Endeavour Crater from atop ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Sol 3182 (Jan. 5, 2013). The rover then drove 43 feet to arrive at ‘Whitewater Lake’ and investigate clay minerals. Photo mosaic was stitched from Navcam images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Opportunity Celebrates 9 Years on Mars snapping this panoramic view of the vast expanse of 14 mile (22 km) wide Endeavour Crater from atop ‘Matijevic Hill’ on Sol 3182 (Jan. 5, 2013). The rover then drove 43 feet to arrive at ‘Whitewater Lake’ and investigate clay minerals. Photo mosaic was stitched from Navcam images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

“The Curiosity team has said they want to do at least one more drilling in Yellowknife Bay area,” according to Webster.

Curiosity has already accomplished her primary task and discovered a habitable zone that possesses the key ingredients needed for potential alien microbes to once have thrived in the distant past on the Red Planet when it was warmer and wetter.

The robot found widespread evidence for repeated episodes of flowing liquid water, hydrated mineral veins and phyllosilicates clay minerals on the floor of her Gale Crater landing site after analyzing the first powder ever drilled from a Martian rock.

Video Caption: Historic 1st bore hole drilled by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on Sol 182 of the mission (8 Feb 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (http://www.kenkremer.com/)

During conjunction Curiosity collected weather, radiation and water measurements but no imagery.

Check out this wonderful new story at Space.com featuring Curiosity mosaics by me and my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo and an interview with me.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop where the robot conducted historic first sample drilling inside the Yellowknife Bay basin, on Feb. 8 (Sol 182) at lower left in front of rover. The photo mosaic was stitched from raw images snapped on Sol 177, or Feb 3, 2013, by the robotic arm camera - accounting for foreground camera distortion. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).
Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop where the robot conducted historic first sample drilling inside the Yellowknife Bay basin, on Feb. 8 (Sol 182) at lower left in front of rover. The photo mosaic was stitched from raw images snapped on Sol 177, or Feb 3, 2013, by the robotic arm camera – accounting for foreground camera distortion. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).

Watch this brief NASA JPL video for an explanation of Mars Solar Conjunction.