Berkeley space scientists say ‘bon voyage’ to Mars-bound MAVEN

NASA’s newest Mars-bound mission, MAVEN, blasted off promptly at 10:28 a.m. PST today, to oohs and aahs from the approximately 75 UC Berkeley staff assembled at the Space Sciences Laboratory to watch their handiwork head to the Red Planet. More than half of the instruments aboard the spacecraft were built at UC Berkeley.

Peter Harvey discusses goals of MAVEN mission. Roxanne Makasdjian video.

The crowd saved its applause, though, until 55 minutes later, when MAVEN, short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, fired up its second stage rockets and left Earth forever. After a 10-month trip, it will settle into Mars orbit in September 2014, where it will study what remains of Mars’ atmosphere.

“MAVEN is an extraordinarily exciting mission,” said Peter Harvey, who is flight software lead for the mission. “We are doing something no one has done before: learning the history of the planet by going into its atmosphere.”

Three hours after launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, MAVEN had spread its solar panels and was coasting to Mars.

“I’ve been involved with MAVEN since it was little more than a blank piece of paper, almost 10 years ago. At last, to see the rocket lift off, taking the instruments we spent so many hours developing and testing in the lab was very gratifying,” wrote David Mitchell, UC Berkeley principle investigator, in an email message from Florida, where he watched the launch. “The next time we will communicate with our instruments, 16 days from now, they will be in space on their way to Mars.”

Where did all the air go?

MAVEN was designed to find out why Mars lost its atmosphere and water. Scientists believe that Mars once had an atmosphere, oceans and rivers similar to Earth. Yet today it is a red and dusty sphere drier than any desert on Earth.

From its Martian orbit, the spacecraft will collect evidence to support or refute the reigning theory that the main cause was loss of its magnetic field 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, which allowed the solar wind and solar storms to scour the atmosphere away. Water not frozen under the surface would have quickly disappeared also. The answer to this question will give planetary scientists a hint of what the future may bring for other planets, including Earth.

Space scientists watching MAVEN launch

Scientists, engineers and staff at the Space Sciences Laboratory cheered when NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft successfully reached Earth orbit, a waystation on its 10-month trip to Mars, where it will hunt for evidence of what happened to the planet’s atmosphere and water. At center, clapping, is Tom Immel, who is leading development of another satellite, ICON, that is scheduled for launch by NASA in 2017. Robert Sanders photo.

Under the leadership of deputy principle investigator Janet Luhmann, late physicist Robert Lin, who was the UC Berkeley principle investigator, and Mitchell, who replaced Lin, Berkeley scientists built two-thirds of the instruments in the Particles and Fields Package aboard the spacecraft. These instruments will characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet.

The scientists noted that Mars’ atmosphere at the surface is about the same as Earth’s atmosphere at about 36,000 feet altitude, where jetliners cruise. As MAVEN loops in a highly elliptical orbit, it will sample all layers of the upper atmosphere to identify the molecules there and their temperature and electrical environment.

The spacecraft will carry two other instrument suites: a remote sensing package focused on the upper atmosphere and ionosphere, and a package to measure the composition and isotopes of neutral ions. These instruments were built by teams at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, where MAVEN’s principal investigator, Bruce Jakosky, is based. UC Berkeley also provides education and public outreach for the mission.

“It’s been about as near-perfect a mission development from proposal to launch as I can imagine,” Luhmann said in an email from Florida. “It was a thrill to see it finally on its way to Mars to deliver unprecedented knowledge regarding how Mars’ atmosphere changed over its 4 billion year history. We are truly elated and when it goes into orbit next September and turns on, it will be the treat of a career lifetime to be involved in the new insights MAVEN brings!”

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