The Red Planet is certainly getting a lot of attention at the moment. With the ISRO’s probe Mangalyaan preparing to leave Earth’s orbit and slingshot off to Mars, the Russian Space Research Institute planning a mission to its moon Phobos, and the Curiosity Rover serenely trundling around Gale Crater on its surface, any little green men on its surface are being hard pressed to keep hidden. And on the 18th November, NASA added the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) Mission into the fray.
The probe launched from Cape Canaveral with the mission of analysing the Martian atmosphere, the weather patterns affecting it, and finding out what it is that caused the loss of Mars’ atmosphere and where it went, either absorbed into the crust of the planet or bled off into the depths of space.
When it arrives at Mars in around ten months’ time, the satellite is due to spend one Earth year in an elliptical orbit around the planet. Its focus of analysis will change depending on how close it is to the surface; when swooping low to the ground, MAVEN will be only 93 miles (150 km) above the surface, allowing it to skim the edge of the Martian thermosphere and take gas samples for chemical analysis in the on-board Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS). When, at 3728 miles (6000 km), the probe reaches the apex of its orbit, it will be able to use the Particles and Fields Package (PFP) to perform a scan of the entire planet using ultraviolet imaging to get a large scale image of the planet’s atmosphere and weather patterns.
MAVEN also carries the impressive sounding and long winded Solar Energetic Particle (SEP), Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA), and Solar Wind Electron Analyzer (SWEA) to take additional measurements of the space around Mars to analyse the rate of gas loss from the planet, and from there calculate an estimate for a time when Mars had an atmosphere thick enough to allow the possibility of sustaining life.
The MAVEN probe is the second step of the Mars Scout Program being organised by NASA, the first being the Phoenix probe that launched back in 2007. Despite this considerable delay between the two operations, hopefully the current resurgence in public interest in deep space and interplanetary exploration will help scientists to more fully uncover the secrets of the Bringer Of War.