Dave Brain
Dave Brain

If you go

What: Ancient Mars & the MAVEN Mission

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 10

Where: Chautauqua Community Center

Cost: $10, $7 for members

More info: chautauqua.com

It's likely that Dave Brain's enthusiasm for sharing science will be evident when he kicks off Chautauqua's lecture series on space on Thursday evening.

Brain is one of the scientists working on MAVEN — the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission — a NASA-funded project that will study the historic atmospheric changes on the red planet. (He is an assistant professor at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder.)

The search for evidence of life on Mars grabs headlines, but much more is happening on our neighboring planet — as Brain will be talking about in his lecture.

What is the MAVEN project?

It's a spacecraft that will be launched in November, and 10 months after that launch, it will enter orbit in Mars. The purpose is to take measurements of the Martian atmosphere to determine how much of its atmosphere has escaped into the solar system as it is swept away by solar wind. We will then use those measurements to determine how much has been lost over the last 4-plus billion years of solar system history.

Are all planets losing their atmosphere over time?

To some degree, all planets are capable of losing their atmospheric particles, but Mars is much more susceptible to this process than planets like Earth for two reasons. First is that Mars does not have a deep magnetic field like Earth's. Because of this, Mars is less protected from particles coming in from the Sun. Solar wind is capable of stripping away particles from the Martian atmosphere. Another reason is because Mars is about half the size of Earth, and thus it is less capable of holding on to its atmospheric particles due to its weaker gravity. So it's essentially easier to rip particles away from it.

You are a co-investigator for this project. Can you tell me a little more about your involvement?

In this project, I'd say there are close to 40 co-investigators. We're all scientists with different responsibilities. Some are building MAVEN's instruments. Others are analyzing data that will eventually be coming from MAVEN from Mars. My specific job will be charged particle data that MAVEN will send over. The charged particles are especially susceptible to be stripping by solar wind, so understanding how many charged particles are escaping will tell me more about the history of the atmosphere. My main responsibility before MAVEN enters orbit is to build tools for the science team to use, such as software tools and data visualization tools.

So how long has this project been planned for?

It depends on perspective. The principal investigator is Bruce Jakosky. The first record of this project born as an idea, through e-mail and discussions, was way back in 2003. I came on board in 2004. This is project is older than my children.

And what's the involvement with NASA?

The funding is from NASA. Our mission is a "principal investigator led mission", which means our team planned the entire mission from start to finish. We proposed the entire concept to NASA as part of a competitive process. We were chosen from about 20 proposed Mars mission concepts. They have some management oversight of our mission, but it's led by the team at the University of Colorado under the principal investigator, Jakosky.

I read that this project will be working with NASA's rovers that are currently in Mars now. What is the relationship between the two?

MAVEN will work in two different ways with the rovers. One way is scientifically, which is the one I'm most excited about. NASA has a rover called Curiosity, which is the most recent rover to have launched. It is taking measurements of the atmosphere's composition and radiation environment from the surface, and MAVEN will be making similar measurements from the top of the atmosphere. When you combine the measurements together, we will get a better understanding of the atmosphere as a whole, from the bottom to the top.

The second way is communicative. MAVEN is carrying a relay, so it will take information from the rovers and send it back to Earth. There are other spacecrafts carrying relays that have been orbiting Mars for many years, but they're old and MAVEN will be picking up the slack as they age.

How is your team being affected by the Federal government shutdown?

It certainly introduced issues that we had to tackle. The shutdown happened seven weeks before our launch date. Because Mars and Earth move somewhat relative to each other, we will only have enough fuel to send MAVEN to make it to Mars safely within a three-week period. If we miss this window, we would have to wait another two years for the next launch window. Fortunately, MAVEN was given a government exception because of the importance of the mission for communication with other spacecraft already there, and we only lost two to three days of launch preparations, which we can easily make up. By all reports MAVEN has been a well-run project that did not go over budget or over schedule. The team planned well, and it would have been a shame to miss our launch window through something entirely out of our control.

Contact Mirav Levy at mirav.levy@colorado.edu.