Mars MAVEN Mission Poised for Launch --Will Seek to Answer: "If Mars Was Once Habitable, What Happened?"
When life was just beginning to emerge on Earth, Mars could also have been a watery world shrouded in a dense atmosphere that supported life. One of the reasons water no longer flows on Mars's surface is because its atmosphere is less than 1% of the density of the Earth's.
"What I'm most looking for is clarity," the University of Colorado's Dave Brain, a co-investigator for the $670 million mission, told NBC News. "We're very certain that Mars has undergone some big change over the last several billion years."
Part of that big change had to do with Mars' atmosphere, where the carbon dioxide atmosphere is believed to be once thicker and more Earthlike, which would have kept the planet warmer and wetter. Today, the atmospheric density is just 1 percent of Earth's, offering little protection from the sun's deadly ultraviolet blast. Where did the air go?
"There are only two answers to that question: You can go down, or you can go up," Brain said. "In many regards, Mars is the planet most similar to Earth, but it differs from Earth in a big but subtle way: Earth has a global magnetic field, Mars does not. We think that a global magnetic field can be a very good shield for the atmosphere," Brain added.
The spacecraft is currently undergoing a series of final tests, such as a harrowing spin test at Kennedy Space Center to make sure the probe is properly balanced as it spins during the early stages of its primary mission. MAVEN will undertake a sojourn of 10 months, reaching Mars orbit in September 2014. The probe will then begin its yearlong primary science mission, to determine how Mars lost much of its atmosphere early in its history. MAVEN will examine the Martian atmosphere at all latitutes, and at altitudes as low as 93 miles and as high as 3,800 miles. MAVEN will also carry out five deep dip maneuvers into the Martian atmosphere, going as low as 78 miles, the lower boundary of the planet’s upper atmosphere.
To accomplish its mission, the 5,410-pound spacecraft will carry three scientific instrument suites. The Particles and Fields Package consists of six instruments that will measure and describe the Martian ionosphere and the solar wind striking it. The Remote Sensing Package will measure the global attributes of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer will ascertain the composition of the upper atmosphere.
“The MAVEN mission is a significant step toward unraveling the planetary puzzle about Mars’ past and present environments,” explained John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Image at the top of the page shows the Valles Marineris - which some scientists believe may have been carved by glaciers. A growing body of evidence points to the fact that water once flowed on the planet.
The Daily Galaxy via NASA and NBC News