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 information about MAVEN visit and


Nov. 15, 2013


CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics is leading NASA’s $671 million MAVEN mission to Mars, which is targeting its upper atmosphere to understand how it went from a warm, wet planet likely suitable for life several billion years ago to a cold dry planet today. It is slated for launch Nov. 18, 2013.

• CU-Boulder is the only university in the world to have designed, built and launched instruments to every planet in the solar system. LASP currently has a $12.5 million instrument on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now at Saturn, an $8.7 million instrument on NASA’s MESSENGER mission now at Mercury and a student-built dust counting instrument on the New Horizons mission launched in 2006 and now en route to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

• A mission control team at LASP, primarily composed of students, operated NASA’s Kepler spacecraft from 2009 until 2013. Kepler observations led to the discovery of 167 confirmed planets outside our solar system and more than 3,500 planet candidates. The primarily student team also controls three other NASA satellites from campus.

• LASP has operated more spacecraft than all other university-based organizations combined and employs about 150 undergraduate and graduate students in all areas of science, engineering and mission operations.

• CU-Boulder is the No. 1 public university in the nation in NASA funding.

• The identical Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft launched by NASA in 1977 each carried a CU-Boulder instrument for the “Grand Tour of the Solar System,” one of the most exciting and fruitful interplanetary missions ever flown. Each spacecraft is carrying a “Golden Record” – a gold-plated copper phonograph record with greetings in 54 languages, the sounds of surf, thunder, birds and whales and music snippets ranging from Bach and Beethoven to rock-and-roll legend Chuck Berry.

• A $70 million instrument designed by CU-Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy to better understand how galaxies, stars and planets evolved was installed on the Hubble Space Telescope in October 2009. 

• CU-Boulder has been selected to host the headquarters of the National Solar Observatory, the nation’s top ground-based scientific research program studying solar physics and space weather. The mission of SNO is to advance knowledge of the sun both as an astronomical object and as the dominant external influence on Earth.

• Students at the NASA-sponsored Colorado Space Grant Consortium headquartered at CU-Boulder have designed, built and flown three sounding rockets, three space shuttle payloads, two orbiting satellites, 10 sounding rocket payloads and hundreds of balloon payloads. More than 5,000 students, primarily undergraduates, have been directly involved in the consortium’s hands-on space hardware program.

• A $100 million satellite designed, built and operated by LASP and launched by NASA in 2003 known as the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment, or SORCE, is helping scientists learn to study how and why variations in the sun affect Earth’s atmosphere and climate. It is controlled from campus, primarily by students.

• CU-Boulder will receive $18 million from NASA over the lifetime of the Van Allen Belt Probe mission launched in 2012 to study the belts, which are filled with high-energy electrons and protons that can damage spacecraft, GPS and communications systems.

• A $32 million CU-Boulder instrument package to monitor space weather in the near-Earth environment was launched aboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in 2010 to help scientists better understand the violent effects of the sun on near-Earth space weather that can affect satellites, power grids, ground communications systems and even astronauts and aircraft crews. The CU-Boulder Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment, or EVE, is measuring rapid fluctuations in the sun’s extreme ultraviolet, or EUV, output.

• The $6 million CU-Boulder Lunar Dust Experiment designed to study the behavior of moon dust was launched into lunar orbit in September 2013 aboard NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. The $280 million NASA mission will orbit the moon for 100 days.

• In 2010 CU-Boulder was named one of eight partners of the Center for Excellence in Commercial Space Transportation by the Federal Aviation Administration. The center will focus on four major research areas: space launch operations and traffic management; launch vehicle systems; commercial human space flight; and space commerce including law, insurance, policy and regulation.

• BioServe Space Technologies, a NASA-sponsored center in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department, has designed, built and flown more than 50 payloads on more than 40 spaceflight missions on space shuttles, the International Space Station, Russia’s Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and Russia’s Mir Space Station.  Bioserve was formed in 1989 to develop products through space and life science research in partnership with industry, academia and government using the microgravity of space.

• Eighteen CU-Boulder astronaut-affiliates have flown 43 missions in space, spanning NASA’s Mercury, Apollo and space shuttle programs. Two former NASA astronauts – Jim Voss and Joe Tanner – are currently on the faculty at CU-Boulder.

Bruce Jakosky, 303-492-8004
Jim Scott, CU media relations, 720-381-9479


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