On Monday, NASA confirmed the launch date of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission (MAVEN). According to the space agency, MAVEN will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 1:28 PM EST on November 18 on the first leg of its mission to study the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet.
Monday’s announcement allowed space scientists a sigh of relief because the recent partial shutdown of the US federal government over a budget dispute put the MAVEN mission in danger of missing its launch window. This would have meant a postponement of at least 26 months while NASA waited for Mars and Earth to move back into the proper alignment.
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"When we proposed and were selected to develop MAVEN back in 2008, we set our sights on Nov. 18, 2013, as our first launch opportunity," says Dave Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at Goddard. "Now we are poised to launch on that very day. That's quite an accomplishment by the team."
The MAVEN mission is aimed at answering the question of where the Martian atmosphere went to. Evidence from various space probes indicates that billions of years ago Mars had a much thicker carbon dioxide atmosphere and free-flowing water that may have supported microbial life. But since that time, that atmosphere has been nearly completely stripped away, leaving the planet a desert drier than any place imaginable on Earth.
The answer this conundrum, NASA is sending the US$671 million MAVEN spacecraft to make the most comprehensive study yet of the Martian upper atmosphere. The 5,410-lb (2,450-kg) unmanned probe was built by Lockheed Martin, which is responsible for mission operations, and is based on the earlier Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey spacecraft.
Its goal is to study the history of the Martian atmosphere and the processes that affect it, such as the rate of atmosphere loss, how the upper atmosphere interacts with the solar wind, and the ratios of various isotopes. These will later be compared with similar measurements taken by the Curiosity rover on the Martian surface.
To accomplish its mission, MAVEN is equipped with three instrument suites. First, there’s the Particles and Fields Package, which is made up of six instruments for studying the solar wind and the Martian ionosphere. This includes sensors for measuring the solar wind, ionospheric electrons, the Martian magnetic field, and other properties.
The second is the Remote Sensing Package, which is designed to measure global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere as well as taking ultraviolet spectroscopic images of the planet.
Finally, there’s the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, which measures the composition of the Martian upper atmosphere with a specific interest in isotopes of neutral gases and ions.
If the November launch is successful, it will be the beginning of a 10-month journey to Mars that will see it arrive in orbit around the Red Planet on September 22 of next year. MAVEN will then go into a highly elliptical orbit as it begins its one-year science mission. The angle of the orbit will allow it to observe all the latitudes of Mars as it swings out to a distance of 3,728 mi (6,000 km) to make planet-wide observations before orbiting back to 93 mi (150 km) above the surface to sample the atmosphere directly. During the mission, the craft will dip down to an altitude of about 77 mi (125 km), which is the lower edge of the Martian upper atmosphere.
In addition to its science mission, MAVEN will also provide a data link from other Mars exploration craft to Earth, though its highly elliptical orbit will make this a limited function.
"The MAVEN mission is a significant step toward unraveling the planetary puzzle about Mars' past and present environments," says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The knowledge we gain will build on past and current missions examining Mars and will help inform future missions to send humans to Mars."
The video below is of Monday’s press conference confirming the launch date