NASA launch on Monday will help pave way to life on Mars

Monday, November 18th, marks the first launch window for NASA’s next mission to Mars. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), is NASA’s tenth Mars orbiter to be launched since 1996. MAVEN is the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mar’s upper atmosphere. This mission has three primary objectives:

  1. Determine the history of the structure and composition of the Martian upper atmosphere.
  2. The cause and rate that gasses escape the atmosphere to space.
  3. Use collected data to measure the prognosis of future atmospheric loss.

MAVEN inside of its fairing attached to the Atlas V rocket. Photo by Tyra Robertson

Mars seems to have gone from being a warm, wet planet with a liquid core (with magnetic fields strong enough to maintain an atmosphere) to a cooled, solidified core that weakened the magnetic fields, and therefore the atmosphere, and turned the planet into its frozen desert-like surface. By gathering information about the Mars upper atmosphere and its magnetic field, MAVEN helps pave the way to rebuilding the atmosphere making it possible for life on the red planet.


The MAVEN spacecraft, and mission, is a collaboration between NASA, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California–Berkeley, and United Launch Alliance. The spacecraft, with the solar arrays deployed, is 37.5 feet (11.43 m) long with a height and width of 11.4 feet by 7.5 feet (3.47 m x3.47 m). The solar arrays are made of four panels containing 2,000 solar cells that generate between 1,150 to 1,700 watts depending on the spacecraft’s position in Mars orbit. MAVEN will deploy the solar arrays about 58 minutes into flight just after it completely detaches from the second stage of the Atlas V rocket.

Two or three weeks into its cruise to Mars, MAVEN will power up and perform a post launch instrument check. The Particles and Field instruments (see below) will remain on so it can collect data on the way. The information collected on the way to Mars will help us understand how deep space travel will effect humans. MAVEN is expected to reach Mars orbit in September of 2014 and its primary mission will last one Earth year. If MAVEN stays operational beyond a year, it will be able to study the seasons of a Martian year which is 98 weeks long. If MAVEN keeps on keeping on, it can begin to include data from the Sun’s 11-year solar cycle.

Ions, Electrons, and Probes, oh my!
Curiosity isn’t the only Martian vehicle that has cool gadgets. MAVEN is a powerhouse of scientific instruments, eight in total. Four of the instruments, part of the Particles and Fields package, were developed by UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory.

  • Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA)mounted on the spacecraft and oriented towards the sun so it can measure the density, temperature, and velocity of solar wind ions.
  • Solar Wind Electron Analyzer (SWEA)—sits on a boom on the end of a 5.4 foot (1.7 m) boom extended from the spacecraft. The SWEA will help determine the source of ionization in the Martian atmosphere.
  • Solar Energetic Particle (SEP)—measures how much energy comes from the sun during storms and flares into the Mars upper atmosphere.
  • SupraThermal and Thermal Ion Composition (STATIC)—keeps an eye on how fast hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and carbon dioxide ions leave the upper atmosphere and either get lost or drop back down into the upper atmosphere.

    Artist rendering od MAVEN (Courtesy NASA/GSFC)
    Artist rendering od MAVEN (Courtesy NASA/GSFC)

The University of Colorado developed the Remote Sensing Package at their Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). This package includes a Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) and the Remote Sensing Data Processing Unit. The IUVS will map the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere and measure how fast hydrogen atoms escape. A UVIS was aboard the Cassini probe that launched in 1997. LASP, in collaboration with UC Berkeley, also developed the Langmuir Probe and Waves (LPW) instrument, two sensors mounted on 23 foot (7 m) booms extending from the spacecraft. These sensors help scientists figure out the boundaries and density of the Martian ionosphere.

The two remaining instruments are a Magnetometer and the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS), developed by NASA’s Goddard Flight Center.

  • Measurements from the NGIMS will show how activity like dust storms and space weather affect the amount gas that escapes to space.
  • The Magnetometer is located on each end of MAVEN’s solar panels and will start collecting data on the way to Mars. Collecting magnetic field data provides context for other tools aboard MAVEN. These sensors can detect a magnetic field that is a million times weaker than the earth’s magnetic field.

To learn more about the mission, tune into NASA TV Monday, November 18th at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard time for prelaunch coverage. The launch window opens at 1:28p.m. and remains open for two hours.

Check our site launch day for a special behind the scenes look at launch pad photography!