Update for Sept 25: After 10 months in space, NASA's MAVEN spacecraft arrived at the Red Planet on the night of Sept. 21, 2014, on a mission to study the atmosphere of Mars in amazing new detail.
The space agency's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission (MAVEN for short) is designed to peer into the Martian past in an attempt to piece together how the ancient Red Planet changed from a wet world into the dry desert scientists study today.
The $671 million mission will investigate the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet, focusing on how the planet lost most of its atmosphere and liquid water. [NASA's MAVEN Mission to Mars: Photos]
After launch in mid-November, the school bus-size spacecraft embarked upon an approximately 10-month journey to Mars.
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Spacecraft on and orbiting Mars
MAVEN was the 10th Mars orbiter launched by NASA, and it is now one of five active probes currently orbiting the Red Planet: Mars Odyssey was launched in 2001, the European Space Agency's Mars Express launched in 2003, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005, and India's $74 million Mars Orbiter Mission blasted off in November 2013, just two weeks before MAVEN. The Indian probe, known as Mangalyaan, arrived in Mars orbit on Sept. 23, 2014.
NASA also has two rovers currently studying Mars from the surface of the planet: Opportunity and Curiosity. The Curiosity rover that landed on the Red Planet in 2012 was the last NASA mission launched to Mars. [NASA's MAVEN Mars Probe: 10 Surprising Facts]
Scientists think that a few different factors could have driven the escape of Mars' atmosphere, according to NASA:
- Kinetic Energy: Molecules in the atmosphere of Mars could naturally bounce off of one another, making the high-energy atoms in the upper atmosphere escape into space. This could be the reason Mars lost hydrogen.
- Photochemistery: Sunlight can create positive ions that can recombine with electrons and cause a reaction that energizes atoms, which then escape from the atmosphere.
- Solar Wind: Magnetic field lines carried by solar wind could have carried charged molecules in Mars' upper atmosphere into space.
- Sputtering: Some ions, although very energetic, may not have escaped Mars and were hurled back into the atmosphere. If these charged particles hit other molecules, it could spur their acceleration, causing atmospheric loss.
MAVEN will carry to Mars eight science instruments specifically picked to investigate the Martian atmosphere. [How NASA's MAVEN Mars Orbiter Works (Infographic)]
According to NASA, they include:
- Solar Energetic Particle: This instrument measures the ions of hydrogen and helium emitted by the sun during solar weather, according to NASA. The SEP will provide data about how much solar energy is sent to Mars' upper atmosphere and their possible role in "sputtering."
- Solar Wind Ion Analyzer: The SWIA will measure the temperature, density and velocity of the solar wind when they come into contact with Mars' atmosphere.
- SupraThermal and Thermal Ion Composition: This instrument will examine the composition of high-energy ions in the Martian upper atmosphere. These ions could be lost into space or rebound back into the atmosphere, causing sputtering, according to NASA.
- Langmuir Probe and Waves: This instrument lets scientists find the boundary and density of the ionosphere, potentially allowing them to calculate atmospheric escape, NASA officials said.
- Solar Wind Electron Analyzer: The SWEA measures the angular distributions and energies of electrons. The instrument can help scientists map the solar wind regions as MAVEN orbits the Red Planet.
- Magnetometer: This instrument will collect data about the magnetic environment as MAVEN orbits Mars. The magnetometer gives other instruments important information as well, NASA officials said, because magnetic fields can affect the upper atmosphere of the planet.
- Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer: This instrument will provide data about how the upper atmosphere's composition and structure changes around the planet throughout the mission.
- Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph: The IUVS will examine the chemical makeup of Mars' atmosphere by chemically mapping the upper atmosphere of the planet and measuring the rate of escape for hydrogen atoms.
MAVEN is also carrying the Electra Communications Relay that will be a backup communications option for Curiosity and Opportunity. MAVEN can serve as a relay point between the Mars rovers and their handlers on Earth. Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter both serve the same communications functions as well.
For the latest information on MAVEN, visit: