NASA’s Next Mars Mission Leaves Colorado on Trip to the Red Planet
Next stop: Mars.
NASA’s next mission to the Red Planet is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN spacecraft, or MAVEN, which on Friday arrived at the Kennedy Space Center. The satellite was designed and built outside Denver by Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
MAVEN is scheduled to launch this November, following prelaunch setup and testing.
The spacecraft’s mission is to survey the upper atmosphere of Mars, according to the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). LASP is MAVEN’s principal investigator and is providing science operations and instruments.
While recent high-profile missions to Mars have studied the planet’s surface, MAVEN will tackle different Martian mysteries—what happened to the gas that made up the Martian atmosphere, and what role did its play in transforming Mars’ climate?
MAVEN is expected to enter Mars’ orbit in September 2014 and is planned to have a one-year mission conducting tests that will help scientists reconstruct the planet’s past climate and possibly learn more about whether Mars was ever suitable for life.
“We are not a life detection mission,” LASP and CU planetary scientist Bruce Jakosky said in a statement. “But we are involved in understanding the environment of Mars and how it may have been able to support life. The overriding questions about Mars are whether there was life there in the form of microbes, and if there still could be microbial life in the planet’s subsurface.”
The Martian surface has features that resemble dry lakes and riverbeds and also minerals that form only in the presence of water. Scientists believe they suggest Mars once had a much denser atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface.
“We think that Mars was probably much more Earth-like roughly 4 billion years ago. We want to know how the climate changed, where the water went and what happened to the atmosphere,” Jakosky said.
MAVEN has several connections to Colorado. LASP is in charge of the scientific side of the mission, and MAVEN was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems—a division of Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) that is headquartered in Littleton, which is outside Denver.
MAVEN will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-401 rocket. ULA is a joint project of Lockheed Martin and Boeing (NYSE: BA), and it is headquartered south of Denver in the city of Centennial.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems will be in charge of mission operations following launch, but before then there’s a lot of work to be down. It includes re-installation of the high-gain antenna, software testing, propellant loading, a spin balance, a second solar array deployment and illumination test, and a payload deployment test, according to Lockheed Martin, which also will be in charge of mission operations.
MAVEN weighs 1,784 pounds and made the trip to Cape Canaveral in a special container carried in an Air Force C-17.
“It was great to see MAVEN leave Colorado and arrive at Florida,” Jakosky said in the release. “As thrilling as it was to fly with MAVEN on the C-17, I’m more looking forward to the day when it arrives at its final destination and we can begin our science observations.”