NASA announced yesterday its decision to offer the University of Colorado an astonishing $485 million grant, which will be used in the research concerning the Martian air. The contract, named the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission or MAVEN, is the biggest in the university’s history and it will be carried out by the school’s Laboratory for Space and Atmospheric Physics. “This is the largest contract to date, but we really can’t say it’s the largest of all time,” said Stein Sture, CU’s vice chancellor for research.
The project will include about 200 people and will also be supported by several CU-Boulder graduate and undergraduate students.
“We are standing here at the University of Colorado,” said CU President Bruce Benson, “but this (project) is helping us become the university of the universe.”
The mission’s principal investigator, CU’s Bruce Jakosky, explained that the research will involve the upper atmosphere and how the planet interacts with the sun and with the solar wind. According to scientists, the solar wind represents the sun’s outer atmosphere which manages to reach all the planets with charged particles. In our case, these particles are repelled by Earth’s magnetic field and the atmosphere is protected. The difference on Mars is that its magnetic field no longer functions, allowing the solar wind to break down its atmosphere.
“This mission is about understanding the history of liquid water,” Jakosky said. “Why did the atmosphere change? Why did a warmer, wetter planet turn into the thin, cold atmosphere we see today?” He also added that this is an outstanding mission which will provide fundamental science results for Mars, as the previous missions only investigated Mars’ lower atmosphere. In order to complete its tasks, the spacecraft will be equipped with at least eight scientific instruments and will take several samples from the various layers of Martian air in order to study the planet’s atmospheric gases, upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The planet’s drastic climate change represents the mission’s focus, as scientists are looking to identify its past state, the different stages it experienced and also a careful analysis of its current appearance.
"This [Maven] mission will provide the first direct measurements ever taken to address key scientific questions about Mars' evolution," explained Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars exploration program at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.
At this point, NASA has two spacecrafts near Mars - the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Odyssey craft. Their mission objectives deal with the planet’s geochemistry and send from time to time detailed pictures of its formations.
The mission was initially scheduled for a 2011 launch but due to the fact that Mars comes close enough to Earth every 26 months, NASA decided to postpone it for November 18, 2013. This delay will shorten the mission from two years to one as the solar cycle will provide significantly fewer events to study. Still, the scientists are certain that the time is sufficient to gather all the needed data and some of the preparation for the project have already begun.