Between a new NASA orbiter and India’s first Martian spacecraft, the red planet has gotten a fair bit busier this week. Mars is now populated entirely by robots (as far as we know).
Ten months and 442 million miles (711 million km) after launching from Cape Canaveral, NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft finally went into orbit around Mars on Sunday. MAVEN, an acronym for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, is an aeronomy mission — a mission designed to explore Mars’ upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The instruments on board are looking to see how, and how much, charged particles from the Sun have stripped Mars of chemical compounds over time, specifically carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water.
The goal of the mission is to reverse-engineer Mars’ atmosphere to get a sense of how wet it was in the past. It’s basically the Mars version of scooping up a ladle of steam from over a pot of water and, analyzing only that ladle of steam, determining how much water was in the pot before it started to boil.
MAVEN’s orbital insertion burn lasted a little more than 33 minutes and consumed 250 gallons of fuel. And because of the distance between the Earth and Mars, the mission team didn’t get confirmation that the engines had shut down and that the burn was good until 12 minutes after the burn had ended. But when that confirmation came, the team’s relief was palpable. “I think my heart’s about ready to start again,” said principle investigator Bruce Jakosky from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder in a NASA press release. “I’m delighted to be here safely and successfully, and looking forward to starting our science mission.”
Following in MAVEN’s footsteps Tuesday was India’s Mangalyaan — nicknamed MOM — spacecraft. The car-sized orbiter is the first Indian mission to the red planet, and the first time a nation has had a successful Mars mission on its first try. And it was done on a shoestring budget; the mission cost about $74 million while MAVEN’s price tag is set at $671 million. “The odds were stacked against us,” said India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a news conference. “When you are trying to do something that has not been attempted before, it is a leap into the unknown. And space is indeed the biggest unknown out there.”
MOM will also be studying Mars’ atmosphere, looking specifically for atmospheric methane that could be an indication of life.
MAVEN and MOM are joining a small army of spacecraft already orbiting Mars. There are two NASA orbiters actively working around the planet. The 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter was designed to determine what exactly Mars is made of, looking specifically for water and subsurface ice as well as at the planet’s radiation environment. The 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was designed to look for evidence that water once persisted on Mars’ surface for a significant length of time. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is also the mission with the HiRISE camera on board that keeps sending back the most stunning, giant pictures of the Martian surface.
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express Orbiter is also circling our sister planet. The spacecraft is imaging the surface, mapping Mars’ mineral and atmospheric composition, working out the details of the planet’s structure and substructure, studying the interaction between the atmosphere and the surface, and the interaction between the atmosphere and the solar wind.
Curiosity takes a selfie.
And we’ve got two rovers actively exploring the surface. NASA’s Opportunity rover, which recently celebrated ten years on Mars, holds the off-world distance driving record; it’s covered more than 25 miles. Opportunity is NASA little roving geologist. The mission is looking at how water affected Mars’s environment over time, but without liquid water on the surface it’s looking for evidence of past water in rocks, minerals, and geologic landforms. The Curiosity rover, which recently celebrated two years on Mars, is a roving chemistry lab. By analyzing surface materials and rocks, the rover has already achieved its primary goal and confirmed that Mars’ ancient environment would have been able to support microbial life.
All of these missions are leading to the ultimate goal of landing men and women on Mars. If we’re going to set foot on the red planet, we need to know what kind of world we’re dealing with.
IMAGES: NASA, /JPL/University of Arizona