MAVEN Spacecraft Returns First Mars Observations
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has obtained its first observations of the extended upper atmosphere surrounding Mars.
The Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument obtained these false-color images eight hours after the successful completion of Mars orbit insertion by the spacecraft at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, after a 10-month journey.
The image shows the planet from an altitude of 36,500 km in three ultraviolet wavelength bands. Blue shows the ultraviolet light from the sun scattered from atomic hydrogen gas in an extended cloud that goes to thousands of kilometers above the planet’s surface. Green shows a different wavelength of ultraviolet light that is primarily sunlight reflected off of atomic oxygen, showing the smaller oxygen cloud. Red shows ultraviolet sunlight reflected from the planet’s surface; the bright spot in the lower right is light reflected either from polar ice or clouds.
The oxygen gas is held close to the planet by Mars’ gravity, while lighter hydrogen gas is present to higher altitudes and extends past the edges of the image. These gases derive from the breakdown of water and carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere. Over the course of its one-Earth-year primary science mission, MAVEN observations like these will be used to determine the loss rate of hydrogen and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. These observations will allow us to determine the amount of water that has escaped from the planet over time.
MAVEN is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars.
NASA Mission Provides Its First Look at Martian Upper Atmosphere
Three views of an escaping atmosphere, obtained by MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph. By observing all of the products of water and carbon dioxide breakdown, MAVEN's remote sensing team can characterize the processes that drive atmospheric loss on Mars.
Image Credit: University of Colorado/NASA
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has provided scientists their first look at a storm of energetic solar particles at Mars, produced unprecedented ultraviolet images of the tenuous oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon coronas surrounding the Red Planet, and yielded a comprehensive map of highly-variable ozone in the atmosphere underlying the coronas.
The spacecraft, which entered Mars' orbit Sept. 21, now is lowering its orbit and testing its instruments. MAVEN was launched to Mars in November 2013, to help solve the mystery of how the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere.
"All the instruments are showing data quality that is better than anticipated at this early stage of the mission," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN Principal Investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "All instruments have now been turned on -- although not yet fully checked out -- and are functioning nominally. It's turning out to be an easy and straightforward spacecraft to fly, at least so far. It really looks as if we're headed for an exciting science mission."
Solar energetic particles (SEPs) are streams of high-speed particles blasted from the sun during explosive solar activity like flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Around Earth, SEP storms can damage the sensitive electronics on satellites. At Mars, they are thought to be one possible mechanism for driving atmospheric loss.
A solar flare on Sept. 26 produced a CME that was observed by NASA satellites on both sides of the sun. Computer models of the CME propagation predicted the disturbance and the accompanying SEPs would reach Mars on Sept. 29. MAVEN's Solar Energetic Particle instrument was able to observe the onset of the event that day.
"After traveling through interplanetary space, these energetic particles of mostly protons deposit their energy in the upper atmosphere of Mars," said SEP instrument lead Davin Larson of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. "A SEP event like this typically occurs every couple weeks. Once all the instruments are turned on, we expect to also be able to track the response of the upper atmosphere to them."
The hydrogen and oxygen coronas of Mars are the tenuous outer fringe of the planet's upper atmosphere, where the edge of the atmosphere meets space. In this region, atoms that were once a part of carbon dioxide or water molecules near the surface can escape to space. These molecules control the climate, so following them allows us to understand the history of Mars over the last four billion years and to track the change from a warm and wet climate to the cold, dry climate we see today. MAVEN observed the edges of the Martian atmosphere using the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS), which is sensitive to the sunlight reflected by these atoms.
"With these observations, MAVEN's IUVS has obtained the most complete picture of the extended Martian upper atmosphere ever made," said MAVEN Remote Sensing Team member Mike Chaffin of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "By measuring the extended upper atmosphere of the planet, MAVEN directly probes how these atoms escape to space. The observations support our current understanding that the upper atmosphere of Mars, when compared to Venus and Earth, is only tenuously bound by the Red Planet's weak gravity."
IUVS also created a map of the atmospheric ozone on Mars by detecting the absorption of ultraviolet sunlight by the molecule.
"With these maps we have the kind of complete and simultaneous coverage of Mars that is usually only possible for Earth," said MAVEN Remote Sensing Team member Justin Deighan of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "On Earth, ozone destruction by refrigerator CFCs is the cause of the polar ozone hole. On Mars, ozone is just as easily destroyed by the byproducts of water vapor breakdown by ultraviolet sunlight. Tracking the ozone lets us track the photochemical processes taking place in the Martian atmosphere. We'll be exploring this in more complete detail during MAVEN's primary science mission."
There will be about two weeks of additional instrument calibration and testing before MAVEN starts its primary science mission. This includes an end-to-end test to transmit data between NASA's Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars and Earth using the MAVEN mission's Electra telecommunications relay. The mission aims to start full science gathering in early to mid-November.
MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. The University of California at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory also provided four science instruments for the mission. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland manages the MAVEN project and provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.
Early discoveries by NASA’s newest Mars orbiter are starting to reveal key features about the loss of the planet’s atmosphere to space over time.
The findings are among the first returns from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, which entered its science phase on Nov. 16. The observations reveal a new process by which the solar wind can penetrate deep into a planetary atmosphere. They include the first comprehensive measurements of the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere and electrically charged ionosphere. The results also offer an unprecedented view of ions as they gain the energy that will lead to their to escape from the atmosphere.
“We are beginning to see the links in a chain that begins with solar-driven processes acting on gas in the upper atmosphere and leads to atmospheric loss,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Over the course of the full mission, we’ll be able to fill in this picture and really understand the processes by which the atmosphere changed over time.”
On each orbit around Mars, MAVEN dips into the ionosphere – the layer of ions and electrons extending from about 75 to 300 miles above the surface. This layer serves as a kind of shield around the planet, deflecting the solar wind, an intense stream of hot, high-energy particles from the sun.
Scientists have long thought that measurements of the solar wind could be made only before these particles hit the invisible boundary of the ionosphere. MAVEN’s Solar Wind Ion Analyzer, however, has discovered a stream of solar-wind particles that are not deflected but penetrate deep into Mars’ upper atmosphere and ionosphere.
Interactions in the upper atmosphere appear to transform this stream of ions into a neutral form that can penetrate to surprisingly low altitudes. Deep in the ionosphere, the stream emerges, almost Houdini-like, in ion form again. The reappearance of these ions, which retain characteristics of the pristine solar wind, provides a new way to track the properties of the solar wind and may make it easier to link drivers of atmospheric loss directly to activity in the upper atmosphere and ionosphere.
MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer is exploring the nature of the reservoir from which gases are escaping by conducting the first comprehensive analysis of the composition of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. These studies will help researchers make connections between the lower atmosphere, which controls climate, and the upper atmosphere, where the loss is occurring.
The instrument has measured the abundances of many gases in ion and neutral forms, revealing well-defined structure in the upper atmosphere and ionosphere, in contrast to the lower atmosphere, where gases are well-mixed. The variations in these abundances over time will provide new insights into the physics and chemistry of this region and have already provided evidence of significant upper-atmospheric “weather” that has not been measured in detail before.
New insight into how gases leave the atmosphere is being provided by the spacecraft’s Suprathermal and Thermal Ion Composition (STATIC) instrument. Within hours after being turned on at Mars, STATIC detected the “polar plume” of ions escaping from Mars. This measurement is important in determining the rate of atmospheric loss.
As the satellite dips down into the atmosphere, STATIC identifies the cold ionosphere at closest approach and subsequently measures the heating of this charged gas to escape velocities as MAVEN rises in altitude. The energized ions ultimately break free of the planet’s gravity as they move along a plume that extends behind Mars.
The MAVEN spacecraft and its instruments have the full technical capability proposed in 2007 and are on track to carry out the primary science mission. The MAVEN team delivered the spacecraft to Mars on schedule, launching on the very day in 2013 projected by the team 5 years earlier. MAVEN was also delivered well under the confirmed budget established by NASA in 2010.
The team’s success can be attributed to a focused science mission that matched the available funding and diligent management of resources. There were also minimal changes in requirements on the hardware or science capabilities that could have driven costs. It also reflects good coordination between the principal investigator; the project management at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; and the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.
The entire project team contributed to MAVEN’s success to date, including the management team, the spacecraft and science-instrument institutions, and the launch-services provider.
“The MAVEN spacecraft and its instruments are fully operational and well on their way to carrying out the primary science mission,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The management team’s outstanding work enabled the project to be delivered on schedule and under budget.”
MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the mission.
NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft Completes First Deep Dip Campaign
NASA’S Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution has completed the first of five deep-dip maneuvers designed to gather measurements closer to the lower end of the Martian upper atmosphere.
“During normal science mapping, we make measurements between an altitude of about 150 km and 6,200 km (93 miles and 3,853 miles) above the surface,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder. “During the deep-dip campaigns, we lower the lowest altitude in the orbit, known as periapsis, to about 125 km (78 miles) which allows us to take measurements throughout the entire upper atmosphere.”
The 25 km (16 miles) altitude difference may not seem like much, but it allows scientists to make measurements down to the top of the lower atmosphere. At these lower altitudes, the atmospheric densities are more than ten times what they are at 150 km (93 miles).
“We are interested in the connections that run from the lower atmosphere to the upper atmosphere and then to escape to space,” said Jakosky. “We are measuring all of the relevant regions and the connections between them.”
The first deep dip campaign ran from Feb. 10 to 18. The first three days of this campaign were used to lower the periapsis. Each of the five campaigns lasts for five days allowing the spacecraft to observe for roughly 20 orbits. Since the planet rotates under the spacecraft, the 20 orbits allow sampling of different longitudes spaced around the planet, providing close to global coverage.
This month’s deep dip maneuvers began when team engineers fired the rocket motors in three separate burns to lower the periapsis. The engineers did not want to do one big burn, to ensure that they didn’t end up too deep in the atmosphere. So, they “walked” the spacecraft down gently in several smaller steps.
“Although we changed the altitude of the spacecraft, we actually aimed at a certain atmospheric density,” said Jakosky. “We wanted to go as deep as we can without putting the spacecraft or instruments at risk.”
Even though the atmosphere at these altitudes is very tenuous, it is thick enough to cause a noticeable drag on the spacecraft. Going to too high an atmospheric density could cause too much drag and heating due to friction that could damage spacecraft and instruments.
At the end of the campaign, two maneuvers were conducted to return MAVEN to normal science operation altitudes. Science data returned from the deep dip will be analyzed over the coming weeks. The science team will combine the results with what the spacecraft has seen during its regular mapping to get a better picture of the entire atmosphere and of the processes affecting it.
One of the major goals of the MAVEN mission is to understand how gas from the atmosphere escapes to space, and how this has affected the planet's climate history through time. In being lost to space, gas is removed from the top of the upper atmosphere. But it is the thicker lower atmosphere that controls the climate. MAVEN is studying the entire region from the top of the upper atmosphere all the way down to the lower atmosphere so that the connections between these regions can be understood.
MAVEN is the first mission dedicated to studying the upper atmosphere of Mars. The spacecraft launched Nov. 18, 2013, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. MAVEN successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014.
MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the MAVEN project and provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The University of California at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory also provided four science instruments for the mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.