Nov 18 2013


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.


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.

4 responses so far

4 thoughts on “MAVEN”

  1. nybgrus says:

    We are very jealous Dr. Novella! My fiance also works for Lockheed but on the J2X engine system, so we are at home watching the live broadcast. It is really awesome that you get the opportunity and that Elliot and Lockheed appreciate scientific skepticism enough to invite you all over there. One of our family friends is a program manager for Lockheed at KSC named Dennis Baird. If you happen to see him tell him Andrey Pavlov says hello.

    I’m looking forward to seeing your pictures.

  2. tmac57 says:

    Very cool that you got to witness the launch. I’ve always wanted to see one.

    Am I the only one who can’t read ‘MAVEN’ without hearing it like Jerry Lewis (or Jay Novella) would say it?

  3. John Pieret says:

    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.

    I think the idea is that Mars’ originally molten core cooled to the point that it no longer “spun” relative to the outer mantle; which is the “dynamo” that creates Earth’s magnetic field. Without the magnetic field that deflects the solar wind on Earth, that stream of particles “blew away” Mars’ atmosphere.

    That also prevented tectonic movement of the upper crust, which, in turn, also explains Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano, because, unlike Earth volcanos, the “hot spot” that generated the volcano didn’t move relative to the surface. So, instead of creating multiple volcanos, as in the Hawaiian islands, Olympus Mons just got bigger and bigger.

  4. Bronze Dog says:

    I’m certainly curious about this sort of stuff. I remember watching a show that had a speculative effort to terraform Mars to the point that people could walk around wearing only an oxygen mask. I remember one phase involved building Martian factories with a carbon quota to raise the greenhouse effect and melt/sublimate the ice to contribute water vapor.

    Given the issues of lower gravity and lack of volcanic activity, I wonder how sustainable a manmade atmosphere would be. The idea of Martian factories also strikes me as a bit implausible since our preferred methods of generating carbon dioxide depend on having oxygen for combustion, which seems like a luxury outside of Earth, so I’m curious where they’d extract it from and how. Of course, there’s also the cost of building those factories in the first place. It’s expensive enough to send mass into Earth orbit, so I don’t think it’d be easy to convince manufacturing companies to invest in Martian factories.

    For Mars’ magnetic field, I think I recall hearing the same thing as John Pieret: The core cooled off and stopped spinning relative to the surface. Since we don’t live in the absurd fiction of The Core, I don’t think that’d be an easy issue to fix.

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