NASA Spacecraft MAVEN Is Now Orbiting Mars
NASA probe MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) is now orbiting Mars. MAVEN, which successfully entered Mars's atmosphere yesterday at 10:24 pm, may be able to answer one of the greatest mysteries of the red planet.
Millions of years ago, Mars may have looked somewhat like Earth. Features such as dry riverbeds indicate that Mars once had an atmosphere that rendered it warm enough to contain liquid water. Scientists hypothesize that Mars lost 99% of its atmosphere over time when the core of the planet began to cool. Since the core controls the magnetic field, the cooling of the core would cause the field to decay, which would, in turn, allow the atmosphere to be whisked away into space by solar winds. MAVEN, which receives data on Mars's nebulous upper atmosphere, may be able to confirm this hypothesis.
"As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars's upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s."
In anticipation of MAVEN's attempt to insert itself into Mars's orbit, team members at Maven's mission control center in Colorado reportedly brought peanuts and Mars candy bars for good luck and (hopefully) celebration. When Dave Folta, mission design and navigation lead, said "Congratulations, MAVEN is now in Mars orbit," the team responded with applause and hugs.
"You get one shot with Mars orbit insertion, and MAVEN nailed it tonight," said David Mitchell, the mission's program manager.
The probe has been traveling for 10 months and 442 million miles in order to reach Mars. Upon successful insertion, it will enter a six-week commissioning phase, in which it will test all of its equipment and reach an optimal orbiting position. The mission, which took eleven years of planning, is expected to last for one year, in which it will measure the composition, structure and behavior of gases in Mars's upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind. It will particularly study the escape of the atmosphere into deep space.
MAVEN joins several other probes that are currently orbiting Mars, such as Odyssey, Reconnaissance, and Express. Mangalayaan, which measures methane levels as a potential indicator of the presence of organisms, is expected to join them tomorrow.
"We make fundamental discoveries every time we go," said principal investigator Bruce Jakosky. "We're looking at a part of the Mars environment system we haven't explored in detail."
It also joins rovers Opportunity and Curiosity, the latter of which sent this welcoming tweet:
MAVEN isn't only carrying scientific equipment. The probe is also carrying a "best-of Earth" DVD, which contains 100,000 human names, 377 student art projects, and more than 1,000 haiku poems. NASA held several contests in order to decide whose names and art projects would be shared with Martians.