|MAVEN approaching Mars|
There's another probe around the Red Planet, and nobody seems to care very much. Gone are the days when getting something into space is a big deal. Back in the 1970s, the world would watch breathlessly as each rocket launch sent something out of earth's atmosphere. Now, even putting something into close orbit around Mars, a planet we still know almost nothing about, is greeted with a yawn.
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, where it now will prepare to study the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere as never done before. MAVEN is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars. NASA put out this simple animation to help publicize the event.
|MAVEN orbiting Mars|
Now, that isn't much of a headline grabber - that MAVEN will be studying the upper atmosphere of Mars. However, it is very important for what we intend to do down the road.
“As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our 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,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.”
Personally, I have my doubts about that last point. With the slow pace of the U.S. space program and the sheer lack of urgency regarding anything related to space flight, the goal of putting someone on the Red Planet in the 2030s seems wildly optimistic. NASA is having a hard enough time with its wacky plan to bag an asteroid and bring it back to orbit the Moon.
This animation depicts MAVEN orbiting Mars at a range of 77 miles. After a 10-month journey, confirmation of successful orbit insertion was received from MAVEN data observed at the Lockheed Martin operations center 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 received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna station in Canberra, Australia.
Now that it is in orbit, MAVEN will commence a six-week commissioning phase that includes maneuvering 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.
"It's taken 11 years from the original concept for MAVEN to now having a spacecraft in orbit at Mars,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU/LASP). “I'm delighted to be here safely and successfully, and looking forward to starting our science mission."
Here is some deep background from NASA:
MAVEN launched Nov. 18, 2013, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying three instrument packages. The Particles and Fields Package, built by the University of California at Berkeley with support from CU/LASP and Goddard contains six instruments that will characterize 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.