September 19, 2015 – Nick Schneider, a key scientist on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), gave a keynote speech at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science today. The speech was part of a larger event hosted by CU Boulder to celebrate the launch of its first Grand Challenge “Our Space. Our Future.”
Schneider is an Associate Professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado and a researcher in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Schneider serves as the instrument lead for the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) on the MAVEN mission.
The MAVEN spacecraft was launched to Mars on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on November 18, 2013. Its mission is to discover how the Red Planet lost much of its atmosphere, transforming the planet from one that could have supported life billions of years ago into its present cold and barren state.
The primary science mission for MAVEN is designed to be one Earth-year, but MAVEN carries enough fuel to extend its science mission for an additional 29 months and then another six years in a higher orbit, chosen to conserve fuel.
In light of its scientific success thus far, the MAVEN mission was extended from November of this year through September of 2016. This will bring the MAVEN mission cycle in synch with the wider planetary mission review process, planned in 2016, that will determine future mission extensions.
“NASA has approved MAVEN through 2016 and we’re hoping we’ll be extended beyond that,” Schneider said. “We’re excited to collect data for a full Mars year!”
A year on Mars is nearly twice as long as that on Earth and although its rotation period is similar to Earth’s, Mars has a larger orbital eccentricity, which means that its seasons differ in length. NASA’s approval to extend the mission beyond its original one Earth year means that MAVEN scientists will be able to collect atmospheric data through an entire Martian year and observe any seasonal changes.
MAVEN successfully entered the orbit of Mars on September 21, 2014 and in its first year has made some exciting discoveries. Notably, scientists have found that the atmosphere can be energized by solar storms hitting the planet. Atoms in the Martian upper atmosphere become electrically charged ions after being energized by solar and space radiation. Because they are electrically charged, these ions feel the magnetic and electric forces of the solar wind, a thin stream of electrically conducting gas blown from the surface of the Sun into space at about a million miles per hour. The solar wind and more violent solar activity, such as solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections, have the ability to strip away ions from Mars’ upper atmosphere through electric and magnetic forces generated by a variety of mechanisms, causing the atmosphere to become thinner over time.
MAVEN has also detected a long-lived layer in the electrically charged upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) of Mars made up of metal ions (iron and magnesium) that come from incoming solar-system debris, such as comet dust and meteorites. The incoming material is heated up by the atmosphere as it enters, burns up and vaporizes, and even ionizes.
MAVEN had previously detected the metal ion layer associated with dust from the close passage of Comet Siding Spring last October.
“The top of the atmosphere was ablaze with magnesium – burnt up comet dust – because that comet came so close,” Schneider said. “Thanks to Lockheed Martin for getting us up and running again so quickly so we could record that event.”
When MAVEN did its first “deep dip” campaign in February, and lowered the closest point of the spacecraft’s orbit to around 125 kilometers (almost 78 miles) altitude, MAVEN detected metal ions that still resided in the upper atmosphere.
The spacecraft has also seen the Red Planet lighting up under the impact of violent solar activity. Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) blast billions of tons of solar material into space at millions of miles per hour. Because Mars is not protected by a global magnetic field like Earth, CME particles directly impact the Martian upper atmosphere, generating diffuse displays of light called aurora. The high-energy particles from the Sun hit the upper atmosphere, excite the atoms that are there, and the atoms give off energy as they relax to their ground state.
On Earth, the effect of our magnetic field concentrates auroral displays near the Polar Regions, where they are known as the Northern and Southern lights. On Mars, the aurora seen by MAVEN is more diffuse, and the effects also could drive the escape of atmospheric gas into space.
“MAVEN is already rewriting the textbooks,” Schneider said.
The University of Colorado is the lead institution for the MAVEN mission, through the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky, a CU-Boulder professor and LASP research scientist, leads the project on behalf of NASA.
Jakosky worked with a national team to conceive of and design the mission concept, spacecraft, and eight science instruments to take measurements as they orbit the Red Planet. Of the eight instruments, two were designed and built at LASP — benefitting from the laboratory’s 65 years of experience in space science and space hardware development.
The University of California at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory provided four science instruments for the mission. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the MAVEN project and provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.