Nov 18 2013

MAVEN

Published by under Astronomy
Comments: 4

I am away this week, visiting the Kennedy Space Center and hoping to see the launch of MAVEN. I was kindly invited, along with my family, by Elliot Goldman, an SGU listener who works for Lockheed Martin, the company who built the MAVEN craft. At the mission briefing yesterday they said there is a 60% chance of launch – scattered lightening storms are predicted which may interfere with the launch. The skies look pretty good this morning, so I am keeping positive.

MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere Volatiles EvolutioN. The probe will insert into Mars orbit (no lander) in a highly eccentric orbit in order to study the atmosphere of Mars. The craft will also do double duty as a communications relay to the current rovers on Mars, Opportunity and Curiosity.

The atmosphere on Mars is 0.6% that of Earth, barely a wisp.  We know, however, that Mars once had a much thicker atmosphere. There are clear signs of rivers and bodies of water on the surface of Mars. This would require not only that the temperature was above freezing, but that there was enough atmospheric pressure to keep the water from just bubbling away.

So billions of  years ago Mars had a warm thick atmosphere, but then it was lost. The leading theory as to what happened is that Mars must have once also had a magnetic field, but this went away for some reason. Earth’s magnetic field protects its atmosphere from the solar wind. Without a substantial magnetic field the solar wind would have stripped the atmosphere from Mars.

There may be other processes at work as well. Mars is smaller than earth with a smaller gravitational field, and so is less able to hold onto an atmosphere, for example. Mars also no longer has any volcanic activity, which would replenish its atmosphere.

The goal of MAVEN is to study the exact question of what happened to the atmosphere of Mars. It has on board a suite of instruments for testing the atmosphere and its eccentric orbit will allow it to sample varying altitudes.

I’ve never seen a rocket launch before, so I really hope the weather holds out. MAVEN is launching atop an Atlas V rocket, which has two stages. The second stage engine is called a Centaur – so the word around KSC this weekend is Go Atlas, Go Centaur, Go MAVEN.

Meanwhile, my family and I get to enjoy the KSC. We saw the Atlantis shuttle yesterday, which is an awesome sight.  They are also hosting a series of lectures this weekend and by far the biggest draw was Bill Nye. He is a rockstar among this crowd, which is awesome to see. He’s not just a famous science popularizer, as the CEO of The Planetary Society he has space exploration cred.

Having heard many people speak over the last couple of days, including scientists, engineers, astronauts, and even people whose job it is to communicate science to the public – Bill Nye blows them all away. He riveted a crowd for an hour without breaking a sweat.

I first heard that he was giving a talk from a waitress at the hotel where we are staying. She credited him with her enthusiasm for science and space. There is a lesson here for the science community. We need people like Bill Nye to promote science and scientific literacy to the public, and to recruit the next generation of scientists. NASA seems to get this – they know they live or die with public support, and they really seemed to understand and appreciate what people like Bill Nye do for them.

OK – I am off for the KSC hoping I get to see a rocket lift off today. I will have my 500mm lens with me so I hope I can grab a few good pictures. I will post them here once I am back home and have access to my computer (I’m working off my iPad right now).

Go Atlas. Go Centaur. Go Maven.

Update:

MAVEN launched without a hitch. It was as awesome as expected. It was also pretty suspenseful as there was a 40% chance it would be scrubbed. When we got the final go ahead for launch the excitement was huge.

Here’s a picture.

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