Posted: September 17, 2008
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft is a $485 million venture scheduled for launch in late 2013, and selected by NASA from 20 other mission proposals. The main task for MAVEN will be to probe the Martian atmosphere, and to attempt to unravel what triggered such a dramatic climate change from the once denser atmosphere that supported the presence of liquid surface water for the first 1-1.5 billion years of Martian history, to the now very thin atmosphere that has lost large quantities of volatiles like carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and water. MAVEN will make scientific measurements of present-day atmospheric loss that will hopefully offer clues about the climatic upheaval that Mars suffered. It will also investigate the atmosphere’s interactions with the Sun’s magnetic field and solar wind.
Artist's concept of MAVEN, set to launch in 2013. Image: NASA.
"This mission will provide the first direct measurements ever taken to address key scientific questions about Mars' evolution," says Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program. "The loss of Mars' atmosphere has been an ongoing mystery. MAVEN will help us solve it."
MAVEN will circle the red planet in an elliptical orbit ranging from around 130 to 6,200 kilometres above the surface, allowing it to dip into the upper atmosphere of Mars at closest approach. The spacecraft's eight science instruments will take measurements during a full Earth year, which is roughly equivalent to half of a Martian year. During and after its primary science mission, the spacecraft may be used to provide communications relay support for robotic missions on the Martian surface.
The mission will be led by Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who will receive $6 million to fund mission planning and technology development over the course of next year. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre will manage the project and Lockheed Martin of Colorado will build the spacecraft based on designs from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey missions.
"We are absolutely thrilled about this announcement," says Jakosky. "We have an outstanding mission that will obtain fundamental science results for Mars. We have a great team and we are ready to go."
MAVEN is the second mission of NASA's Mars Scout program, a recent initiative by the agency for smaller, lower-cost spacecraft. The first of these missions is Phoenix, which is currently operating on the surface of Mars. The Red Planet also plays host to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express and Mars Odyssey orbiting spacecraft and the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Together, this army of Martian explorers seek to characterise and understand Mars as a dynamic system, including its present and past environment, climate cycles, geology and habitability potential.