How did Mars lose its atmosphere? NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, now en route to the Red Planet, aims to find out.
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NASA's latest Mars mission, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, is on its way to the Red Planet to explore the evolution of its atmosphere over billions of years. Scientists leading the mission hope to find out how a planet that once had Earth-like characteristics became the dry desert it is today.
The 37-foot spacecraft, developed by Lockheed Martin, is carrying a payload of science instruments that will analyze Mars's upper atmosphere and will measure current rates of atmospheric loss. MAVEN houses three instrument packages:
The Particles and Fields Package was built by the University of California, Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory, with support from the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. It consists of six instruments. They include the Solar Wind Electron Analyzer (SWEA); Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA); Suprathermal and Thermal Ion Composition (STATIC), which will measure energetic particles in the Martian atmosphere; Solar Energetic Particle (SEP), which will measure the impact of the solar wind on the upper atmosphere of Mars; Langmuir Probe and Waves (LPW), which will determine thermal electron density and temperature; and the Magnetometer (MAG), an instrument for measuring interplanetary solar wind and ionospheric magnetic fields.
The Remote Sensing package, also built by the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, contains the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS), which will measure the global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere of Mars.
The last package, consisting of the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS), will measure the composition and isotopes of neutral ions. NGIMS was developed by the Goddard Space Flight Center.
When MAVEN arrives at Mars in September 2014, the spacecraft will execute a maneuver called orbit insertion, where it will fire six thrusters that will allow it to enter the planet's orbit. In the five weeks that follow, MAVEN will establish itself in orbit, where it will begin a one-year primary scientific mission.
"MAVEN joins our orbiters and rovers already at Mars to explore yet another facet of the Red Planet and prepare for human missions there by the 2030s," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement announcing the launch. "This mission is part of an integrated and strategic exploration program that is uncovering the mysteries of the solar system and enabling us to reach farther destinations."
Through government, industry, and university partnerships, it took NASA 10 years to develop the mission concept and hardware. Click through our slideshow to learn more about NASA's MAVEN mission to Mars. (All images courtesy of NASA.)
Elena Malykhina has written for The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Newsday, and AdWeek. She covers the federal government, including NASA's space missions, for InformationWeek.
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