Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Seeing Red

Look out Mars, here we come (again)!

Yep, we're about to launch another spacecraft to Mars.  It's exciting!  Hopefully, on November 18th, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft will liftoff from Cape Canaveral and begin the 10-month journey to the Red Planet.

An artist's concept of the MAVEN spacecraft at Mars.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

We've learned a great deal about the chilly little world next door over the years.  Rovers aplenty have driven its surface - two of which, Curiosity and Opportunity, are still active.  We've discovered an abundance of evidence that shows that water once flowed freely across the surface of may have formed rivers, lakes, even oceans.

If that is so, the atmosphere of Mars must once have been thicker, for the current thin atmosphere of Mars does not allow water to remain on the surface in liquid form for very long.  Where did this atmosphere go?  What happened to all the water?  On a more global scale - how has the global climate of Mars evolved over the millennia?  And what does that teach us about global climate change here on the Earth?  The MAVEN mission will be headed to Mars to help us answer these questions.

The reddish-orange atmosphere of Mars is visible above the surface in this image from Viking.  Note the Galle "Smiley Face" Crater towards the center-left of the image.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

MAVEN will be an orbiter, remaining above the planet to inspect its atmosphere and how it changes over an extended period of time.  It's four primary mission objectives are:
  • Determine the role that loss of volatiles to space from the Mars atmosphere has played through time.
  • Determine the current state of the upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the solar wind.
  • Determine the current rates of escape of neutral gases and ions to space and the processes controlling them.
  • Determine the ratios of stable isotopes in the Martian atmosphere.
This data will help us understand a lot about how Mars has changed over the long history of the solar system.  It's also important data to have as we continue to consider the possibility of sending humans to explore the surface of the Red Planet.

We're going to Mars now because Mars is making its way closer to us.  In April of next year, Mars will once again make a close approach to Earth, meaning that travel time from Earth to Mars is shorter now.  If problems force a delay in launching MAVEN beyond December 7, scientists will have to wait until 2016 before they can try again.  So hopefully, all systems will be go on November 18 for a great launch!  You can watch the launch activities online at NASA-TV.  And before we know it, even more exciting data will be coming our way from the Red Planet!

More from the universe in two weeks!
Until then,
Carpe Noctem!

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