Sunday, September 21, 2014

MAVEN arrives around Mars to study upper atmosphere

 CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A NASA spacecraft designed to investigate the properties and history of the upper atmosphere of Mars successfully arrived in orbit around the Red Planet on Sunday.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, will begin a one Earth year science mission to learn why the planet has lost much of it's atmosphere over the past few billion years. Controllers will perform six maneuvers over the next six weeks to lower it's elliptical orbit of one revolution every 35 hours down to four-and-one-half hours.

"The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go,” MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky stated on Friday. “These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate and its potential to support at least microbial life.”

Soaring across space at over 8,200 m.p.h., MAVEN turned to face it's six small engines in the direction of travel and begin a 33 minute burn at 9:50 p.m. EDT on Sunday. The burn slowed down the spacecraft sending it into the beginning of a planned orbit 235 miles over the north pole.

As the first signals took over 12 minutes later to reach Earth that the craft had safely arrived in Martian orbit, cheers and applause by project scientists broke the crisp silence of the the mission control facility at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado.

"MAVEN will begin a six week commissioning phase that includes maneuvering the spacecraft into it's final orbit and testing it's instruments and science mapping commands," NASA spokesperson Dwayne Brown explained on Friday.

MAVEN's science orbit is planned with a low point of 90 miles to allow the craft to fly through the planet's upper atmosphere, and a high point of 3,900 miles to collect data on the entire planet's atmosphere.

“MAVEN is another NASA robotic scientific explorer that is paving the way for our journey to Mars,” stated Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. “Together, robotics and humans will pioneer the Red Planet and the solar system to help answer some of humanity’s fundamental questions about life beyond Earth.”

Among the observatory's three main science instruments is the University of California at Berkley's Solar Wind Ion Analyzer or SWIA. NASA explains that SWIA will study the ion particles across the planet's atmosphere to discover why Mars "has gradually lost much of it's atmosphere" to become "a frozen, barren planet".

"We want to know where the atmosphere, especially water, went, how it left and what Mars has looked like over its entire history,” SWIA instrument lead Jasper Halekas of Berkley's Space Sciences Laboratory said. SWIA will measure the solar wind speed and density.

The Lockheed Martin-built MAVEN was launched from Cape Canaveral AFS atop an Atlas V rocket last November, beginning a ten month interplanetary voyage covering 442 million miles.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

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