Mission to study past climate on Mars enters final phase before slated 2013 launch

September 12, 2012

A University of Colorado Boulder-led mission to explore and understand how the loss of atmospheric gas has changed the climate of Mars over the eons has been authorized by NASA to proceed to system delivery, spacecraft integration, testing and launch, which is slated for November 2013.

The mission, NASA's Mars Atmosphere And Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN, passed the critical agency milestone known as Key Decision Point-D, or KDP-D on Monday, said NASA officials.  The key decision meeting moving MAVEN forward was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington and was chaired by NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

“The spacecraft and instruments are all coming together at this point,” said CU-Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky, the MAVEN principal investigator and associate director for science at the university’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or LASP. "Although we’re focused on getting everything ready for launch right now, we aren’t losing sight of our ultimate objective -- getting to Mars and making the science measurements.”

NASA’s $670 million MAVEN mission will be the first devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. The goal of MAVEN is to determine the role that loss of atmospheric gas to space played in changing the Martian climate through time. 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 denser atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface, Jakosky said.

“I’m incredibly proud of how this team continues to meet every major milestone on schedule on its journey to Mars,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Being ready for the start of system level integration and test is critically important to ultimately being ready for launch on November 18, 2013."

KDP-D occurs after the project has completed a series of independent reviews that cover not only technical health of the project but also programmatic health, including schedule and cost. KDP-D represents the official transition from the Phase C development stage to Phase D in the mission life cycle. During Phase D, the spacecraft bus is completed, the science instruments are integrated into the spacecraft, spacecraft testing occurs and the MAVEN mission launches late in 2013.

The huge amount of public interest in NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which landed on Mars Aug. 6 and is currently being driven remotely around the planet, is no surprise to Jakosky. “Mars has a lot of similarities to Earth,” he said.  “It’s the closest planet, it has similar day lengths, and it has an atmosphere, weather and geologic processes similar to those on our own planet.

“But the real kicker is the potential for life,” said Jakosky, who also directs the Center for Astrobiology at the University of Colorado.  “Because of that, I think Mars has always held a special place in the hearts and minds of the public.”

Jakosky, also a professor in CU-Boulder’s geological sciences department, cautioned that there is much more work to be done before launch. “This decision by NASA marks the start of integration of all of the instruments on the spacecraft.  It’s cool to see the spacecraft coming together, but there is a lot of work still to go and a lot of challenges to solve between now and when the spacecraft is ready for launch.”

The next major review for the MAVEN team is the Mission Operations Review in November 2012. This review assesses the project's operational readiness and its progress towards launch. The project will continue to work with partners to deliver all instruments in the next four months.

“CU-Boulder’s participation in Mars exploration missions goes back decades, beginning with NASA's Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 missions launched in 1969,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Stein Sture. “LASP is a proven training ground for students seeking hands-on experience in building, testing and flying space hardware and is the only institute in the world to have designed and built instruments that have been launched to every planet in the solar system.”

The MAVEN spacecraft will carry three instrument suites. The Particles and Fields Package, built by the University of California at Berkeley with some instrument elements from CU’s LASP and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., contains six instruments that will characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet.

The Remote Sensing Package built by LASP will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere, while The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, provided by NASA Goddard, will measure the composition and isotopes of neutrals and ions.

MAVEN will launch during a 20-day period in November-December 2013. It will go into orbit around Mars in September 2014, and, after a one-month checkout period, will make measurements from orbit for one Earth year.

In addition to leading the mission and providing instrumentation, CU-Boulder will provide science operations and direct education and public outreach efforts. NASA's Goddard manages the project. Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo., is building the spacecraft and will perform mission operations. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena 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.

The MAVEN science team includes three LASP scientists from CU-Boulder heading instrument teams -- Nick Schneider, Frank Eparvier and Robert Ergun -- as well as a large supporting team of scientists, engineers and mission operations specialists.

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

For more information about MAVEN visit http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven/ and www.nasa.gov/maven. For more information on LASP visit http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/.

Images courtesy of NASA.

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