CU-Boulder-led NASA mission to study Mars readies for blastoff

A $671 million NASA mission to Mars being led by the University of Colorado Boulder is approaching its official countdown toward a planned Nov. 18 launch after a decade of rigorous work by faculty, professionals, staff and students.

Known as the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN mission, the effort will target the role that the loss of atmospheric gases played in changing the climate there over the eons, said CU-Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principal investigator who is at CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. Clues on the Martian surface, including features resembling dry lakes and riverbeds as well as minerals that form only in the presence of water, suggest that Mars once had a dense atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface, Jakosky said.

The concept for MAVEN, developed a decade ago, came to fruition in 2008 when MAVEN was selected over 19 other proposals to NASA from around the country for Mars missions. The MAVEN science team includes three LASP scientists heading up instrument teams – Nick Schneider, Frank Eparvier and Robert Ergun – as well as a supporting team of scientists, engineers, mission operations specialists and students.

Scientists think Mars was much more Earth-like roughly four billion years ago, and want to know how the climate changed, where the water went and what happened to the atmosphere, said Jakosky, also a professor in the geological sciences department.

“I have incredible appreciation for the work the MAVEN team has done over the last 10 years to put us in the best possible shape for a successful mission,” he said. “I’m proud of what our team has accomplished, and we are anxiously awaiting a successful launch.” The first opportunity for liftoff during the 20-day launch window from Cape Canaveral, Fla., is 1:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 18.

CU’s LASP has previous Mars exploration experience, designing and building instruments that flew on NASA’s Mariner 6, 7 and 9 spacecraft between 1969 and 1972. But MAVEN is the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere, and the sophistication of the instrument packages reflects the advances made by planetary scientists and engineers in recent years.

MAVEN has a decidedly Colorado connection: In addition to CU-Boulder providing the science operations, three of the science instruments and leading education and outreach for the mission, Lockheed Martin of Littleton built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations, while United Launch Alliance of Centennial provided the launch vehicle.

“Planetary scientists have been waiting decades for the right instruments to answer the right questions regarding how the atmosphere of Mars has changed over time,” said LASP Director Daniel Baker. “This mission has been absolutely exemplary in terms of staying on time and on budget, and we expect the data gathered by MAVEN are going to help rewrite the textbooks about the history of Mars.”

“Many of our students, staff, faculty and alumni have been tracking the progress of MAVEN since NASA selected CU-Boulder to lead this mission five years ago,” said CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano. “There will be hundreds of CU-Boulder supporters in Florida for the launch, and the excitement is building by the day.”

In a broader sense, MAVEN should help scientists and citizens not only better understand Mars, but also the solar system and beyond. “What we are really trying to do is understand our relationship to the universe around us,” said Jakosky. “That includes what it means to be alive and what it means to be a civilization. By exploring the universe, we are exploring the human condition.”

The spacecraft will carry three instrument suites. LASP’s Remote Sensing Package will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere, while the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, provided by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will measure the composition of neutral gases and ions.

The Particles and Fields Package, built by the University of California, Berkeley, with some instrument elements from LASP and NASA Goddard, contains six instruments to characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of Mars.

CU-Boulder also will provide science operations and direct education and public outreach efforts. NASA Goddard provided two of the science instruments and manages the project. In addition to building the spacecraft, Lockheed Martin will perform mission operations. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., provides program management via the Mars Program Office, as well as navigation support, the Deep Space Network and the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

MAVEN is slated to begin orbiting Mars in September 2014, and, after a one-month checkout period, will make measurements for one Earth year, said Jakosky. Hopes are high the mission will be extended, perhaps for up to a decade, he said.

MAVEN will include participation by a number of CU graduate and undergraduate students in the coming years. Currently there are more than 100 students working on research projects at LASP, which provides hands-on training for future careers as engineers and scientists, said Jakosky.

For more facts about MAVEN, read the full news release.