NASA's Atmosphere-Monitoring Probe Joins the Party of Orbiters Around Mars

MAVEN adds to the growing collection of spacecraft orbiting Mars, and will gather data that could help develop a manned mission.

Sep 22 2014, 12:40pm

Artist's concept of MAVEN. Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA's new atmosphere-monitoring spacecraft is now successfully orbiting Mars after a 10-month journey through space, adding to the steadily increasing collection of active orbiters helping to pave the galactic way for a manned mission to Mars.

The space agency announced that the MAVEN orbiter (which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) started circling the Red Planet late on Sunday. So at least this time no metric system mix-ups got in the way of the Mars orbiter making its destination.

Unlike Martian rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity, MAVEN won't be getting too close to the intriguingly dusty and once watery surface. Its focus is instead the planet's upper atmosphere: MAVEN is the first spacecraft dedicated to investigating the climate from this position.

But as Motherboard's Amy Teitel explained ahead of the spacecraft's launch, these investigations are closely tied to our interest in water on Mars. The planet's atmosphere once supported water on its surface, but that changed. Exactly how or why, we're not sure—hence this new mission.

MAVEN will study the gas in Mars' upper atmosphere to find out more about its composition, and the rate at which gas—like carbon dioxide—is escaping, changing the atmosphere as it leaves. It's thought that over time the loss of these gases resulted in a thinner atmosphere around Mars, making for a drier, cooler climate. Understanding what went on in the past and what's happening now will have obvious relevance to the potential habitability of the planet.

"As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars' upper atmosphere," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement, "MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet. It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s."

That 2030s deadline was set out by President Obama in 2010, when he gave a space policy speech forecasting a manned mission to orbit Mars by 2030s, and adding that "a landing on Mars will follow." NASA's unprecedentedly huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is a recent practical step toward that goal.

But before we go in person, we could use a lot more knowledge about our Solar System neighbour. MAVEN has eight science instruments onboard to check out the atmospheric climate, and throughout its year-long mission it will dip down from its upper atmosphere orbit at around 150km to 125km from the planet's surface, in order to sample the entirety of the upper atmosphere down to where it meets the lower atmosphere.

Indian Space Research Organisation's Mars Orbiter Mission. Image: ISRO

It's far from the only orbiter with its robotic sight set on Mars. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2005 with the specific mission of studying water on Mars, and it's still sending back revelatory data and images. Mars Odyssey, also a NASA project, has been going since 2001. The European Space Agency also got in on the action in 2003 with their Mars Express.

And the Mars orbiter party is just getting started, as soon after MAVEN's new arrival, the Indian Space Research Organisation expects its own spacecraft to reach the Martian orbit. ISRO's  Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is scheduled to appear on the scene on Wednesday.

As Mars continues to build its reputation as the go-to destination for space missions, the data gathered by its booming population of orbiting and roving visitors will hopefully help bring some human companions to the party of robotic Mars explorers in the not-too-distant (in terms of time, at least) future.