Monday, September 22, 2014

NASA's MAVEN Reaches Mars, Curiosity Slammed by Review Board, Opportunity Keeps on Going

NASA's Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe has just been successfully inserted into orbit around the Red Planet, thus becoming NASA's latest successful Mars mission at the notoriously hard to reach planet. Thus culminates a year-long, 442 million mile trip for the $671 million orbiting space probe.

Now that MAVEN has reached its destination, it will go through a series of shaker-downs in the next 6 weeks as mission control transitions the craft from a highly elliptical capture orbit that takes 35 hours into its much closer and conventional science orbit, which will last for about 4 ½ hours.

Once MAVEN is ready to go, it will be tasked the following mission objectives:

1. Determine how volatile (chemical elements and compounds with low boiling points) loss has impacted the Martian atmosphere
2. Assess the current state of the upper Martian atmosphere, ionosphere, and interaction with the solar wind
3. Determine the rate of escape for neutral gasses and ions
4. Determine the ratio of stable isotopes in the Martian atmosphere

To help MAVEN achieve these objectives, it is packed with instruments that fall into 3 general categories:

Particles and Field (P&F) Package: 6 instruments
1. Solar Wind Electron Analyzer (SWEA) – measures solar wind and ionosphere electrons
2. Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA) - measures solar wind and magnetosheath ion density and velocity
3. SupraThermal And Thermal Ion Composition (STATIC) - measures thermal ions to moderate-energy escaping ions
4. Solar Energetic Particle (SEP) - determines the impact of SEPs on the upper atmosphere
5. Langmuir Probe and Waves (LPW) - determines ionosphere properties and wave heating of escaping ions and solar extreme ultraviolet (EUV) input to atmosphere
6. Magnetometer (MAG) - measures interplanetary solar wind and ionosphere magnetic fields

Remote Sensing Package: 1 instrument
Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer (IUVS) - measures global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere

Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer
Measures the composition of isotopes, neutral gasses, and ions

As for why we should even care at all, scientists believe that Mars was once very similar to Earth at a point in its distant past. However, for reasons that are still unknown, the planet lost its atmosphere and transformed from a habitable, Earth-like world into the barren, cold desert planet that it is today. For us here on Earth, understanding the mechanism of how this happened could not only help us better understand our atmosphere on Earth but, in the future, possible terraform Mars into a world that is once again habitable.

Curiosity Slammed by Senior Review

It's been two years since NASA landed its $2.5 billion Curiosity rover on Mars and, according to a review board at NASA, there's very little to show for it. At the start of this month, NASA's senior planetary review board issued a scathing report on the progress of Curiosity, saying that the mission “lacks scientific focus” and that the team as a whole exhibits an attitude of nonchalance, seemingly secure in the belief that the rover's $2.5 billion price tag protects it from criticism. In short, the panel said that the rover was doing too much driving and too little science and recommended that the team essentially drive around less, do more in-depth science when the rover stops, and articulate a clear science agenda for the future rather than use the rover as a cosmic sight-seer.

Opportunity Keeps on Going

The Opportunity rover, now in its 10th year and 25th mile on Mars (not bad for a robot with a 90-day design life) has just had its memory reformatted and is now ready to get on with its next objective: drive to Marathon Valley and suspected clay deposits. The key here: clay only forms in water and the search for past evidence of water on Mars is a major focus of the mission. The same review panel that slammed Curiosity also weighed in on Opportunity, saying that the rover was still clearly capable of doing science while expressing concern over its computer. Well, software fix complete, it appears that Opportunity has a clean bill of health. Here's to another 10 years and the next 25 miles!

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