The latest mission to Mars successfully launched today from Cape Canaveral, Fla, and several Georgia Tech students and professors were in attendance for the launch. Dubbed MAVEN, for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, the probe will spend one year in space studying the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. Below, James Wray, an assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech who studies the geology of Mars, talks about what MAVEN means for Mars researchers.
It is great to be on our way to Mars again! Competitively selected through the "Mars Scout" program, MAVEN is one of NASA's more focused and comparatively inexpensive planetary missions. It carries eight science instruments to provide a comprehensive view of Mars' upper atmosphere and the processes by which that atmosphere is gradually being lost to space. The cold, tenuous atmosphere that remains today is less than 1 percent of Earth's, so any surface water rapidly boils away or freezes. But deep (now dry) river valleys, hydrous minerals and other clues indicate a much thicker atmosphere in the distant past. For centuries, Earth scientists have known that "the present is the key to the past," and so we hope that quantifying atmospheric loss today with MAVEN will help us to understand how Mars has transformed over deep time.
Beyond its science mission, MAVEN will fill a key role for communication with other spacecraft on the Martian surface. NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers can communicate directly with Earth, but relay most of their data through the larger antennas on spacecraft orbiting Mars. The "youngest" of these spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), was launched over eight years ago, and as NASA and other world agencies plan new missions to the Martian surface, it is important to renew our orbital assets there.
If all continues on schedule, MAVEN will join her older siblings at Mars in 10 months. The rovers, MRO, and the Mars Express and 2001 Odyssey orbiters all continue to do new science that is helping to rewrite our textbooks. Today in Nature Geoscience, my colleagues and I published MRO-based evidence for granitic rocks on Mars, which imply a more complex volcanic history than previously appreciated. These veteran spacecraft (and others, such as Cassini at Saturn) have all outlived their "primary missions," a wonderful fact that allows us to make new observations in response to their initial discoveries, for example by seeking additional granite exposures on Mars now that we know how to find them. Regrettably, the greatest threat to continued operation of these missions may not be aging parts, but insufficient funding.
Today's successful launch to Mars is humanity's second this month. Approximately every two years, Earth and Mars align favorably for interplanetary transfer. Save 2009, we have utilized every one of these opportunities since the time I was in elementary school. With at least two more launches planned in early 2016 and one each in 2018 and 2020, our thrilling pace of Mars exploration, motivated by ongoing discoveries there, shows no signs of abating. But other fascinating worlds also have periodic launch opportunities, which we largely underutilize. Examples include Jupiter's moon Europa, with its global water ocean. Or Saturn's large moon Titan, where the chemical building blocks of life literally rain from the sky, and flow across the surface in rivers and lakes. And still more distant worlds, not yet seen by any eyes from Earth, robotic or human. Like my predecessors in planetary science, I hope my own career will include visits to each of these destinations.
This week marks 50 years since the premature passing of President Kennedy, who notably stated that we set ambitious goals in space exploration "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." In that spirit, may we continue onward and outward for years to come.
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