Mars exploration is back on, and in a big way. According to Space.com, a new U.S.-built high-tech probe, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft, is expected to enter orbit around Mars on September 21. MAVEN could remain active on the red planet for as long as a decade.
Indian MOM mission also arrives at Mars in September
NASA Isn’t the only organization with a near-term Mars exploration mission. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) orbiter is scheduled to make its own Mars arrival on September 24th, just three days after MAVEN. MOM and MAVEN both launched in early 2013.
More on NASA MAVEN probe
MAVEN is the first mission designed for the rigorous study of the atmosphere of Mars, especially how it has evolved throughout the history of the planet.
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First, the spacecraft must fire its engines to enter an orbit around the planet, then pass a commissioning phase and take some precautions regarding a comet that will pass close to Mars.
“We’ve been developing MAVEN for about 11 years, and it comes down to a 33-minute rocket burn on Sept. 21,” MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, explained to Space.com in an interview last week.
A primary scientific task for MAVEN will be to determine how the Martian atmosphere has evolved over the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history.
Earlier spacecraft have found definite evidence that water once flowed across many areas of Mars. This means the red planet would have had a thicker atmosphere at the time. But what happened to make the atmosphere get thinner as it is now is not well understood.
Most of Mars’ water disappeared about 3.5 billion years ago, Jakosky explained, so researchers decided to take two different approaches for MAVEN to analyze the role that changes in the atmosphere played.
NASA MAVEN is anticipated to remain active at least one Earth year, but with judicious fuel use it could as long as 10 years. That would be long enough enough for astrophysicists and planetologists to observe the upper atmosphere of Mars change through almost an entire 11-year cycle of solar activity.