After a 10-month journey through space, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN spacecraft has reached the Red Planet and slipped into a 35-hour elliptical orbit without a hitch.
“I was on pins and needles and daggers and swords,” said MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “We have one opportunity to get into orbit — so if we have any problem, that’s the end of the mission.”
The mission will test the top of the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere in order to solve an ancient mystery: Where did the rest of the Martian atmosphere go?
Mars is full of signs that stable liquid water once existed on the surface, from geological features resembling lakes and riverbeds to chemical signatures in rocks modified by water. But how long it lasted depends in large part on how long Mars had a thick, protective atmosphere — rather like Earth’s — that could keep the water from freezing or boiling away.
Getting a handle on that time window could help scientists understand whether this wet climate lasted long enough for life to have potentially emerged on Mars.
Understanding the carbon dioxide flow will be key, Jakosky said. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that can help keep an atmosphere warm, so tracking its disappearance will offer more clues about the climate’s history.
MAVEN joins several other robotic Martian explorers, including NASA’s rovers Curiosity and Opportunity as well as the satellites Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is set to arrive Wednesday.
Planets are complex systems, and it’s important to have different spacecraft examining different aspects of Mars’ behavior, Jakosky said.
“We want to understand how the processes play across the different areas,” he said. “They’re all connected and in order to understand one we need to understand all of them.”
Curiosity has its own instrument suite, called Sample Analysis at Mars, that’s testing the atmosphere near the ground. Coupling that with MAVEN’s look at the top of the Martian atmosphere will give scientists a top-to-bottom picture of the atmosphere as a whole.
Unlike Curiosity, which shot back images of the Martian surface right after landing, MAVEN will spend six weeks adjusting its orbit and testing its instrument systems. Ultimately, it will circle the Red Planet in a mere 4.5 hours.
But it will take a brief break in October, when it will observe comet Siding Spring as it flies by the Red Planet and sheds particles that will crash into the upper atmosphere.
“We would like to take advantage of this natural experiment,” Jakosky said. “We’re hoping it’ll be enough to do some interesting things to the atmosphere.”
MAVEN’s primary mission is set for one year, Jakosky said. But the orbital insertion went so smoothly that they have fuel left over — potentially enough for another 10 years. That would give scientists time to see how fluctuations in the sun’s 11-year solar cycle affect the Martian atmosphere, he said.
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