MAVEN to meet Mars
On November 18th NASA launched MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN orbiter. (A “maven” is a trusted expert in their field, who seeks to share knowledge with others. And you thought it was just another silly acronym.) It will begin its mission when it reaches the red planet in September 2014. But why is it going there? Don’t we already have Curiosity?
We certainly do, but Curiosity is trundling around on the surface whereas MAVEN will orbit Mars; investigating the planet’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere 1. Four billion years ago Mars had an atmosphere dense enough to sustain liquid water on its surface. That’s scientist code for, “it could have sustained life.” Now, that atmosphere has almost vanished – along with the water. The cause is a mystery which MAVEN will attempt to solve 2.
With eight sensors NASA scientists hope MAVEN will aid them in understanding how atmospheric gases escape into space. MAVEN will measure the present state of the upper atmosphere as well as the current rate of loss. What remains of Mars’s thin atmosphere is still decreasing and it will be fascinating to understand more about the planet’s atmospheric evolution.
Missions like MAVEN and Curiousity teach us a great deal about Mars and could help to pave the way for a human mission there in future.