November 18, 2013
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft, now on its way to the Red Planet following a textbook Atlas V launch today, is the first devoted exclusively to studying the Martian upper atmosphere. Assuming the rest of its journey goes as smoothly, the spacecraft is slated to arrive in orbit around the Red Planet on September 22.
MAVEN is the second and last of NASA’s (relatively) low-cost Mars Scout missions (the program has since been discontinued). It’s designed to take measurements from a highly elliptical Mars orbit over a period of one Earth year, with five “deep dips” down to about 125 kilometers altitude to sample the upper atmosphere.
The goal is to better understand how the Martian atmosphere and climate have changed over time. River valleys, shorelines, and evidence of rain on early Mars suggest that the planet was once very different than it is today. Many scientists now believe that Mars had a large northern ocean early in its history, and that even the HellasBasin, which originated from a major asteroid impact, was flooded by a huge sea. How could such a cold planet have bodies of liquid water on its surface? The prevailing theory is that the atmosphere must have been much thicker then—at least as dense as Earth’s atmosphere, with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and perhaps even methane that trap heat. Today as little as one percent of the early Martian atmosphere remains. What happened?
Most scientists think the solar wind—the stream of charged particles coming from the upper atmosphere of the Sun—eroded away most of the Martian atmosphere, especially after the planet’s magnetic field, which offers protection from the solar wind, collapsed. (Because it’s so much smaller than Earth, Mars ran out of internal heat to keep the internal dynamo that generates magnetism going). That all seems to have happened about four billion years ago, after which Mars became a cold and dry planet, with occasional brief periods that were warmer and wetter.
MAVEN will measure how solar activity contributes to atmospheric loss, determine today’s escape rates, and explore the relative importance of various atmospheric loss processes. Knowing today’s escape rates won’t entirely solve the puzzle of why Mars underwent such a profound climatic change billions of years ago, but the measurements should help scientists understand the impact of solar wind on planetary atmospheres.
There are other benefits to this mission as well. MAVEN will determine ratios of stable isotopes in the atmosphere, which will help us trace the history of water on Mars. And the spacecraft will add another radio relay in Mars orbit, which will be useful for current and future landers, including InSight (due to launch in 2016) and Mars 2020.
Dirk Schulze-Makuch is a professor of astrobiology at Washington State University and has published seven books related to the field of astrobiology. He is also adjunct professor at the Beyond Center at Arizona State University.
November 1, 2013
November 5 update: India has launched the Mars Orbiter Mission. The spacecraft is now in its planned Earth orbit, and will depart for Mars on December 1.
In more than half a century of trying, only two space agencies — from the United States and Europe — have managed to pull off entirely successful Mars missions. Attempts by Russia, Japan, England, and China to send spacecraft to the Red Planet have all ended in total or near-total failure.
Now India’s space agency, ISRO, hopes to succeed where others have stumbled. Next Tuesday, an Indian PSLV rocket is scheduled to lift off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre near the country’s southern tip, carrying the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft, also known unofficially as Mangalyaan — Hindi for “Mars craft.”
It’s a bold step for India, but then so was its Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, which mapped the moon’s surface in 2008. By designing the $70 million (cheap for a Mars orbiter) MOM mission as a technology demonstrator, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has taken the cautious route, and may have improved its odds. Rather than load up a big spacecraft with lots of expensive instruments (which would have required a bigger but more failure-prone rocket called the GSLV), ISRO went with the smaller, more reliable PSLV, and a modest payload.
Mangalyaan carries just five small instruments: a color camera, an infrared spectrometer for mapping minerals on the Martian surface, a photometer for measuring hydrogen and deuterium in the atmosphere, another spectrometer focused on the upper atmosphere, and an instrument for measuring methane. The last is of special interest to scientists trying to solve the mystery of methane on Mars. Telescopes on Earth and Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft in Martian orbit have detected enough of the gas in the atmosphere to suggest that it’s being produced currently by Martian organisms. But the Curiosity rover came up empty when it sniffed for methane near the surface. The Methane Sensor for Mars on Mangalyaan is designed to detect atmospheric methane down to several parts per billion. “That would be a valuable contribution,” says Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, one of the leaders in studying Martian methane. “However, the technical difficulties [of achieving that sensitivity] should not be overlooked.”
We’ll keep our fingers crossed on that one.
If the spacecraft just arrives safely in Mars orbit and operates there for six to ten months as anticipated, that alone could qualify the mission as a triumph. Chandrayaan-1 was rightly seen as a success, but the mission was cut short by component failures, and operating at Mars is more difficult than orbiting the moon. The rocket engine designed to brake Mangalyaan into Mars orbit when it arrives next September will have to start flawlessly after a 300-day cruise through cold space. Communications, power, and thermal control will all be more complicated than they were with Chandrayaan.
The graveyard of lost Mars missions includes 19 from Russia alone (although, to be fair, half of those were early in the space age). Japan’s Nozomi spacecraft suffered a fuel valve problem in 1998, and never recovered enough to reach Mars orbit. China’s small Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter had hoped to piggyback on the Russian Fobos-Grunt Mars mission in 2011, but both spacecraft were stranded in Earth orbit when a rocket misfired. England’s Beagle 2 lander, launched in 2003, crashed on the Martian surface. NASA has had its failures, too, including the Mars Climate Orbiter lost in 1999 due to a mixup over metric vs. imperial measurements.
So wish the team at ISRO luck. Launch is scheduled for 4:08 a.m. Eastern (U.S.) time on November 5.
Here K. Radhakrishnan, head of the ISRO, gives a lengthy guided tour of the spacecraft for New Delhi Television:
August 3, 2012
You have to give it to Mike Malin. He tried.
A couple of years ago, the planetary scientist who’s arguably the world’s foremost expert on Martian photography tried to convince NASA to include 3D video capability on the Curiosity lander that’s scheduled to touch down on Mars just after 1:30 am Eastern Monday morning. The 3D version of Malin’s Mastcam camera, as proposed by Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron, would have given us a “you-are-there” feeling of riding along with the rover as it trekked around the planet.
For defensible reasons, NASA decided not to include it.
But another Malin-built camera called MARDI — which, amazingly, was also initially axed by NASA cost-cutters — survived (barely — Malin had to put in his own money), and will film the rover’s descent as it drops to the Martian surface. Here’s NASA’s description of how it will work:
During the final few minutes of Curiosity’s flight to the surface of Mars, the Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will record a full-color video of the ground below. This will provide the Mars Science Laboratory team with information about the landing site and its surroundings, to aid interpretation of the rover’s ground-level views and planning of initial drives. Hundreds of the images taken by the camera will show features smaller than what can be discerned in images taken from orbit. The video will also give fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.
MARDI will record the video on its own 8-gigabyte flash memory at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame. Thumbnails and a few samples of full-resolution frames will be transmitted to Earth in the first few days after landing….The full video — available first from the thumbnails in YouTube-like resolution and later in full detail — will begin with a glimpse of the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover. The first views of the ground will cover an area several kilometers (a few miles) across. Successive frames taken as the vehicle descends will close in and cover successively smaller areas. The video will likely nod up and down to fairly large angles owing to parachute-induced oscillations.
Many of the images may also be blurry, due to the motion of the camera. But hey, it’s video of a Mars landing, people!
I totally get that NASA has to draw the line somewhere at what to pack for its Mars expeditions, and Curiosity‘s managers struggled mightily even to stay within a bloated budget of $2.5 billion. But watch this video of the Huygens spacecraft descending to Titan’s surface in 2005, and tell me you don’t want to see the same thing (or hopefully better) on Mars.
August 6 update: Here’s a lo-res, incomplete version of the MARDI descent video. A much better version will eventually be released.
November 28, 2011
Add two more stripes to this ingenious chart showing all the attempts over the past 50 years to send spacecraft to Mars. Let’s hope that the stripe for the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory, which launched successfully on Saturday, reaches all the way to the surface of the planet.
Sadly, the stripe for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars spacecraft, currently incommunicado in Earth orbit, appears doomed to end at the outside, “fail” ring, which may also spell the end of the country’s planetary program.
The apparent demise of Phobos-Grunt got me reading up on the history of Russian Mars exploration, looking for stories from happier days. I hadn’t known about PrOP-M, the first rover (or maybe crawler is a better word) launched to Mars. It ended up failing , too, but it would have been fun to watch had it succeeded.
By 1971 the Soviets had already landed one Lunokhod rover on the moon’s surface. The 10-pound PROP-M, included as a payload on the Mars 3 lander launched in May 1971, was much more modest. After Mars 3 touched down, the rover, attached to a 15-meter umbilical cord, was designed to shuffle away from the lander on two ski-like contraptions. The video below (queued up here at the 3:51 mark) shows how the rover maneuvered itself. Unfortunately, Mars 3 went silent immediately after it touched down, and PROP-M was never heard from again. NASA didn’t land its own rover on Mars until 1997, when Sojourner rolled off of the Mars Pathfinder.
When Curiosity touches down on Mars next August, it should tip its electronic head in the direction of PROP-M, wherever it lies on the unforgiving plains of Mars.
November 4, 2011
Mars has not been a happy place for the Russian space program. The nation’s attempts to explore the Red Planet, going back more than 50 years, have produced a long litany of failures. The most recent misfire came 15 years ago, when the instrument-laden Mars 96 probe, instead of heading out into the solar system, burned up in the atmosphere and scattered pieces over Chile and Bolivia.
That crash effectively put the Russian planetary program out of business — until now.
On Tuesday a Zenit rocket is scheduled to lift off from Kazakhstan to start the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft on its 10-month voyage to Mars. If all goes well, on Valentine’s Day of 2013, after several months of circling the planet, the lander will touch down on the surface of the moon Phobos to start collecting samples of dirt (“grunt” in Russian). Four days later, a return vehicle will lift off in the moon’s low gravity and bring the samples back to Earth.
We’ll have more details on the Phobos-Grunt mission next week. Meanwhile, here’s some background from Anatoly Zak, the author of our 2008 article, and an animation (with Russian subtitles) from the Roscosmos space agency that shows how it’s all supposed to go.
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