The spacecraft for NASA’s Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN, mission to Mars being led by the University of Colorado Boulder has arrived in Florida in anticipation of a November launch.
The spacecraft was shipped on Friday, Aug. 2, aboard a U.S. Air Force cargo plane from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., to the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Fla. Lockheed Martin had previously assembled and tested MAVEN in its Littleton, Colo., facility.
The mission will be the first devoted to understanding the Martian atmosphere, targeting the role that the loss of atmospheric gases to space played in changing the climate through time, said CU-Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, principal investigator for the project.
“Everything has gone amazingly smoothly,” Jakosky said. “We’ve gotten to this point with all of the spacecraft’s instruments having their full science capabilities, and we firmly believe we can successfully carry out this mission. But we can’t afford to get complacent or to lose our vigilance.”
CU-Boulder is providing science operations, science instruments and is leading the education and public outreach program. The MAVEN science team includes three LASP scientists heading instrument teams -- Nick Schneider, Frank Eparvier and Robert Ergun -- as well as a supporting team of scientists, engineers, mission operations specialists and students.
“We’ve been working on this for nearly 10 years, and we are now on the final journey to the launch pad,” said Jakosky, also a professor in CU-Boulder’s geological sciences department. “It doesn’t get more exciting than that.”
Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. United Launch Alliance, headquartered in Centennial, Colo., will provide the launch vehicle.
MAVEN now will go through a final testing phase in preparation for launch. The MAVEN team will confirm the spacecraft arrived in good condition and re-assemble the components that were removed for the transport from Colorado. The spacecraft is now slated for additional software tests, spin balance tests and further tests on the deployment of the spacecraft’s solar panels and booms that will occur once it achieves Mars orbit.
After final testing and fueling, MAVEN will move to Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A United Launch Alliance V-401 rocket will launch the Mars orbiter on its interplanetary trajectory.
The Martian surface, including features resembling dry lakes and riverbeds as well as minerals that form only in the presence of water, suggest Mars once had a much denser atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface, said Jakosky. “We think that Mars was probably much more Earth-like roughly 4 billion years ago. We want to know how the climate changed, where the water went and what happened to the atmosphere.”
The top of the Martian atmosphere is the conduit through which all of the gases have to pass through on their way to space, said Jakosky. The MAVEN scientists will study the atmospheric loss process to space occurring today, then extrapolate to help determine how much of the atmosphere has been lost over the entire history of the planet.
“We are not a life detection mission,” Jakosky stressed. “But we are involved in understanding the environment of Mars and how it may have been able to support life. The overriding questions about Mars are whether there was life there in the form of microbes, and if there still could be microbial life in the planet’s subsurface.”
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.”
One of the hallmarks of LASP is the involvement of students in every aspect of its space missions, including MAVEN, said Jakosky. “At LASP we have about 120 students working on different aspects of flight projects ranging from engineering and spacecraft operations to data management and science analysis,” he said. “When these students graduate, they find themselves very much in demand around the country because they have tremendous experience.”
In addition to the Colorado contributions to the mission, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is managing the project and provided two of the science instruments for the mission. The University of California, Berkeley, Space Sciences Laboratory provided a science instrument package for MAVEN and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is providing navigation support, the Deep Space Network and the other relay hardware and operations.
For updates, photos and more about the MAVEN journey visit CU-Boulder’s social media collection at http://www.colorado.edu/social/maven-mars.