Published: July 11, 2013

With just over four months until NASA’s next mission to Mars takes flight, the University of Colorado Boulder, which is leading the effort, continues to work with its partners to knock off critical science and engineering milestones leading up to launch.

The assembly and environmental testing of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN, spacecraft has now been completed at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colo., in preparation for shipping to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in early August. The mission will be the first devoted to understanding the Martian upper 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, principal investigator for the project.

“We have a three-week launch window that starts on Nov. 18,” said Jakosky of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “If we miss that window we have to wait another 26 months, so you can imagine the team is working really hard to be ready. Hopefully we will launch during the first minute of the first day.”

The mission has a decidedly Colorado bent: In addition to CU-Boulder providing science operations, science instruments and leading education and public outreach, Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. United Launch Alliance, headquartered in Centennial, Colo., will provide the Atlas 5 launch vehicle.

“When I set out to plan MAVEN, I didn’t intend it to be a primarily Colorado endeavor,” said Jakosky. “I wanted to start with a clean sheet of paper and put together the best team that I could.  It turns out that a lot of the real experience in the space program is right here in the state.”

Jakosky said the original concept for MAVEN goes back nearly 10 years. LASP competed with 20 other proposals from institutions around the country for various types of Mars missions before being selected by NASA in 2008. 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.

The Martian surface, including features resembling dry lakes and riverbeds as well as minerals that form only in the presence of water, suggests 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 on their way to space, said Jakosky, also a professor in the geological sciences department.  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.

Jakosky said the MAVEN science team wants to learn more about how Mars interacts with the solar wind, which can carry energetic particles -- primarily protons and electrons -- at speeds of more than 1 million miles per hour.  “We want to know, for example, how the solar wind strips away gases from the upper atmosphere of Mars.

“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. Some of 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.”

CU faculty members involved in the MAVEN mission also take their experiences back to the classroom. “It’s not just the excitement and new data,” he said. “It’s also the lessons learned in undertaking a huge project like this.”

LASP has a long history of developing science instruments, running missions and even building small spacecraft.  Created in 1948 -- a full decade before the establishment of NASA -- LASP is the only institute in the world to have built and launched instruments to every planet in the solar system, as well as the dwarf planet, Pluto.

According to the Colorado Space Coalition, Colorado has the nation’s second largest aerospace economy, employing more than 160,000 people.  Eight of the nation’s top aerospace contractors have significant operations in Colorado and there are more than 400 space-related companies in the state. CU-Boulder ranks first in the nation in public university funding from NASA.

In addition to the Colorado contributions to the mission from CU-Boulder, Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance, 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.

The outreach and education effort for MAVEN that is being spearheaded by LASP should appeal to all ages, said Jakosky.  As part of the “Going to Mars” campaign, a worldwide student art contest was recently completed, with all 377 entries -- including the first- and second-place winners -- to be included as digital files on a DVD that will ride on the MAVEN spacecraft.

The outreach and education effort also includes a public, three-line haiku poem contest. The winning entries will be chosen online by voters beginning July 15, with the top three being digitized for the MAVEN DVD. In addition, NASA is inviting members of the public to submit their names and personal messages for inclusion on the Mars-bound DVD, said CU-Boulder’s Stephanie Renfrow of LASP, who is coordinating MAVEN’s education and outreach program for NASA.

Members of the public who submit their names to the Going to Mars campaign will be able to print a certificate of appreciation to document their involvement with the MAVEN mission. “This new campaign is a great opportunity to reach the next generation of explorers and excite them about science, technology, engineering and math,” said Jakosky.

“We are hoping that students, faculty and staff will join us at the launch in Florida this November. We also hope people will follow the mission on our Facebook and Twitter sites. But the ultimate goal is that people will be interested enough to follow the science when we began getting our data,” he said.

“I’m delighted to be here at CU-Boulder, and I’m delighted that this mission we have put together has a major Colorado connection.  We are going to Mars!”