The spacecraft for a NASA mission to probe the climate history of Mars led by the University of Colorado Boulder slid seamlessly into orbit at about 8:24 p.m. MDT on Sunday, Sept. 21, the last major hurdle of the 10-month, 442-million-mile journey.
The orbit insertion included the firing of several thruster engines to shed velocity from the spacecraft, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN mission. The maneuver allowed the gravity of Mars to capture the MAVEN spacecraft into an elongated, 35-hour orbit. In the coming weeks MAVEN’s orbit will be reduced to an elliptical, 4.5-hour orbit in order to collect science data.
MAVEN will now begin a six-week commissioning phase that includes testing the instruments and science-mapping sequences. After that, MAVEN will begin its one-Earth-year primary mission, taking key measurements of Mars’ upper atmosphere.
“It looks like we’re in orbit at Mars!” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “After eleven years of development, design, building and testing MAVEN, and ten months of cruise in space to get there, this is incredibly exciting.
“Of course, now the real work begins, of getting ready to carry out our science mission. Then, we’ll begin to reap the rewards of our efforts,” Jakosky said.
MAVEN is targeting the role that atmospheric gases played in changing the climate on Mars over the eons. 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 Mars once had a dense atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface, he said.
The MAVEN science team wants to know what happened to the water and carbon dioxide that was present in the Mars atmosphere several billion years ago, said Jakosky. “These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate and its potential to support at least microbial life.”
NASA’s $671 million MAVEN mission has a hefty Colorado connection: In addition to CU-Boulder providing the project lead, science operations, two of the science instruments and leading education and public outreach for the mission, Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations, while United Launch Alliance of Centennial provided the launch vehicle. The mission is expected to contribute roughly $300 million to the Colorado economy.
MAVEN launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 18, 2013, carrying three instrument suites and is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars. Flight controllers at Lockheed Martin are responsible for the health and safety of the spacecraft throughout the process.
In addition to making measurements of Mars, the MAVEN team also will have a unique opportunity to use a CU-Boulder instrument package on board known as the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph to look at a wayward object known as Comet Siding Spring as it streaks by Mars in October, said Jakosky. Believed to be made up of pristine material present during the solar system’s formation more than 4 billion years ago, the comet will be making its first-ever pass through the inner solar system.
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.
“One of the exciting parts about doing MAVEN is being able to get students involved in all stages of the project,” said Jakosky, also a professor in CU-Boulder’s geological sciences department. “A high-priority goal for us is to educate and train the next generation of space scientists and engineers, and working on a high-profile mission to Mars is a fantastic experience for them.”
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the project and provided two of the science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The University of California at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory provided four science instruments for the mission. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., provides navigation support, Deep Space Network support, and Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.