In an attempt to find more out about our neighbour – the Red Planet – spacecraft MAVEN will be swapping the comfortable conditions of Earth for an orbit around Mars’ cold and dry surface, beginning its 10-month journey from Cape Canaveral today when its launch window opens at approximately 1:28pm EST (18:28 GMT).
MAVEN – short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN – will circle the Red Planet, studying the atmosphere to find out why – as far as we currently understand – the planet transitioned from warm and wet to chilly and dry over the course of its history.
Chief investigator, Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder believes that early Mars owned an atmosphere thick enough to hold water and moist clouds.
“But somehow that atmosphere changed over time to the cold, dry environment that we see today,” he remarks. “What we don’t know is what the driver of that change has been.”
What he and other planetary scientists suspect is that some of the early atmospheric water and carbon dioxide that could have been found on young Mars’ surface disappeared into the Martian crust. This comes after experts discovered evidence of minerals locked in the planet’s surface. “Gases also may have gone up and become lost to space, stripped away by the Sun, molecule by molecule,” Jakosky adds.
The $671 million mission, which will reach its destination in September, follows hot on the trail of Martian rover, Curiosity, which is still trundling around on Mars over a year after its arrival on the ruddy soil. The rover’s goals are to hunt for signs of past habitability, uncover the role of water on the Red Planet as well as studying Mars’ climate and geology.
On its arrival, MAVEN – which is the first spacecraft devoted entirely to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere – will be joined at roughly the same time by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars orbiter mission which left Earth on 5th November. On its mission, India’s first mission to Mars will hunt for methane, a possible indicator of life that might be lurking in the thin Martian atmosphere.
Just how the solar-winged craft, which measures the length of a school bus and weighs in at around 2,400 kilograms (5,400 pounds) intends to study Mars’ atmosphere, involves the agility to dip some 78 miles above the surface and put its eight scientific instruments into play by sampling the atmosphere for an entire Earth year, which equates to roughly half a year on the Red Planet. MAVEN will also make use of an antenna and radio to communicate with Curiosity and its fellow rover companion Opportunity. MAVEN will also communicate with future rovers intending to make Mars their destination in this fashion.
NASA hopes that MAVEN will not only learn more about the makeup of Mars’ present atmosphere but also about its dynamics. Learning more about our rocky neighbour’s atmosphere paves the way for one day landing humans on the Martian surface. Jakosky hopes that the craft will take advantage of the Martian air for braking to assist future exploration.
Currently, weather forecasters have predicted a 60% chance of favourable weather for the launch.
Don’t forget, you can watch the launch over on NASA TV.
Images courtesy of NASA.