MAVEN quick facts
Launch date: Nov. 18, 2013
Scheduled insertion in Martian orbit: 8 p.m. Sept. 21
Duration of mission: Once it is in Martian orbit, MAVEN is designed to last one year. However, it carries enough fuel that its science mission could be extended by 29 months, then up to another six years at a higher orbit.
Cost: It is budgeted at $671.2 million but is expected to come in under budget
More info: http://1.usa.gov/WRNRAa
All is quiet aboard the MAVEN mission to Mars, one of the most significant space adventures to date for the University of Colorado — but it is a planned dormant spell critical to a looming ramp-up for the landmark project.
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission lifted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18 and is now due to enter the Red Planet's orbit at about 8 p.m. MDT on Sept. 21.
"Everything is working well on the spacecraft, and we're not working any issues," Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator on the mission, wrote in an email. Jakosky is a professor of geological sciences and researcher in CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
"We've turned the instruments off and are doing very little on the spacecraft right now — we want it quiet for the remaining 1.5 months until orbit insertion, so that we can focus on getting ready for that event."
Once MAVEN is established in its elliptical orbit ranging from 93 to more than 3,800 miles above the Martian surface, it will launch its study of the upper atmosphere of Mars and how it interacts with the sun and the solar wind.
"We will learn how the sun drives loss of the atmosphere to space, and how much gas has been lost over time," Jakosky said.
Scientists want to find out where the water and the CO2 from an early atmosphere went, and whether loss to space explains the changes believed to have occurred in the Martian climate. The instrument suites carried aboard the year-long MAVEN mission include a remote sensing package designed and built by LASP to determine the characteristics of the Martian upper atmosphere and ionosphere.
'Close' brush with Martian visitor
MAVEN will experience a close encounter with a celestial interloper. The comet Siding Spring, discovered in January 2013 and named for the Australian observatory where its discovery was made, will be making its closest approach to Mars on Oct. 18.
The comet, with the full name C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, is expected to pass within about 133,000 km of Mars, and scientists are watching the comet's flyby with great interest, as well as some concern.
"The event cuts both ways, a little bit," said David Brain, a co-investigator on MAVEN and assistant professor in astrophysics and planetary science at LASP.
"On the one hand, it's a really great scientific opportunity to watch two solar system entities interact, two atmospheres interact, and MAVEN has all the instruments with which to watch that interaction," Brain said. "At the same time, if that dust and particle flux hits the spacecraft, that poses a threat to the safety of our instruments and the safety of our spacecraft."
The MAVEN team has designed a series of defensive measures that will be deployed to protect the spacecraft during Siding Spring's brush with Mars. And, in a recent report to team members, Jakosky struck a note of optimism about the way things will play out.
Citing an analysis by the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, another MAVEN partner, Jakosky wrote, "The dust risk appears to be significantly less than had originally been thought when the comet was first discovered."
At the peak dust risk during the encounter, the MAVEN team is going to position the spacecraft's orbit so that the planet, itself, will act somewhat as a shield. Additionally, most of the science instruments will be turned off to protect them, but several that can be left operational without risking damage if they are hit will remain turned on. That way, they can watch the comet and Mars for about two days before and after the closest approach.
Brain described the comet-Mars encounter — something scientists had no way of knowing about when the MAVEN mission was conceived, prepared and launched — as highly fortuitous.
"It would have been extremely hard to design something like this," Brain said, even if the comet's existence had been known more than 18 months ago.
"To have this once-in-a-century event, or once-in-four-century event, is extremely exciting, scientifically."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.