Mars – here we come again!

September 29th, 2014, Published in Articles: EngineerIT

 

If there is anyone on Mars they must be wondering about the strange object flying around their planet. In science-fiction stories we have given a particular identity to the people that supposedly live on Martian soil. The object troubling our fictional Martians is NASA’s Mars atmosphere and volatile evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft which entered Mars’ orbit on 21 September 2014. MAVEN will prepare to study the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere as never done before, as the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars.

Artist impression of MAVEN as the sun rises over Mars,. Picture cirdir: NASA

Artist’s impression of MAVEN as the sun rises over Mars. Picture credit: NASA

MAVEN is expected to  greatly improve scientists’ understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet. It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. After a ten month journey, confirmation of successful orbit insertion was received from MAVEN data observed at the Lockheed Martin operations centre in Littleton, Colorado, as well as from tracking data monitored at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) navigation facility in Pasadena, California. The telemetry and tracking data were also received by NASA’s deep space network antenna station in Canberra, Australia. “We have a long history of scientific discovery about Mars and the safe arrival of MAVEN opens another chapter,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington, USA. “MAVEN will complement NASA’s other Martian robotic explorers — and those of our partners around the globe — to answer some fundamental questions about Mars and life beyond Earth.” Following orbit insertion, MAVEN will begin a six-week commissioning phase that includes manoeuvring into its final science orbit and testing the instruments and science-mapping commands. MAVEN then will begin its one Earth-year primary mission, taking measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind. The primary mission includes five “deep-dip” campaigns, in which MAVEN’s periapsis, or lowest orbit altitude, will be lowered from 150 km to about 125 km. These measurements will provide information down to where the upper and lower atmospheres meet, giving scientists a full profile of the upper tier.

The commissioning phase will keep the operations team busy for the next six weeks, and then they will begin the science phase of the mission.

MAVEN was launched 18 November 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida bringing to fruition an eleven year project from concept to final launch.  It carries three instrument packages. The particles and fields package, built by the University of California at Berkeley with support from CU/LASP (University of Colorado’s laboratory for atmospheric and space physics) and the Goddard Space Flight Centre contains six instruments that will characterise the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet. The remote sensing package, built by CU/LASP, will identify characteristics present throughout the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The neutral gas and ion mass spectrometer, provided by Goddard, will measure the composition and isotopes of atomic particles. MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at CU/LASP. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. The University of California at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory also provided four science instruments for the mission. Goddard manages the MAVEN project. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. JPL provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

Related Articles

  • Q&A: Ask an expert – Radar sensor FAQs
  • Distance sensors for automation processes
  • Module with inter-continental tracking function
  • Part localiser prevents chaos of mixed-up parts
  • Optimising healthcare through IoT