NASA's MAVEN pushes to meet its launch date to Mars

President Obama wants to send humans to Mars by the mid-2030s. While that is still more than two decades away, there is an unmanned mission to Mars in the meantime that will help astronomers learn more about the red planet’s atmosphere.

Called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission), the mission will measure sun’s effect on Mars’ atmosphere. Astronomers theorize that solar winds stripped Mars of much of its atmosphere over the last few billion years.

Last Friday, NASA gave the green light to the mission managed by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder to move into the development stage.

Although this latest NASA approval is a huge positive step for MAVEN, there are still obstacles and potential roadblocks that need to be cleared before it launches at the end of 2013- and it does need to be 2013, people involved with the mission said.

“There are people who believe that their lives are controlled by the planets. With the MAVEN launch window, our lives are controlled by how close Earth and Mars are to each other,” said Nick Schneider, a member of the MAVEN team at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “There’s an optimal placing of Earth and Mars where we can get there with the least amount of fuel.”

That leaves a window of Nov. 18 to Dec. 7 in 2013. And if not then? MAVEN won’t be able to launch until early 2016, because the two planets won’t be that close to each other again for another 26 months.

“Delaying this long would be a problem for MAVEN, partly because of the additional budget requirements,” said Mary Mellott, the NASA headquarters program scientist for the mission. “However, more centrally, because we would then be launching in a time period when the Sun is relatively inactive, which would limit the probability of MAVEN’s achieving its science objective of determining the effects of solar activity on the Martian atmosphere.”

With NASA’s latest approval, the mission can now get ready for the critical design review in July 2011. Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principal investigator, said the team will make sure they know where everything will go on the spacecraft and where the key components will be built to get ready for the critical design review.

“The process has been writing down a requirement, making a design that meets those requirements, building the thing and testing it,” he said. “And then countdown to launch. All that has to happen between now and November 18, 2013.”

Both NASA and MAVEN team members from the University of Colorado are confident the mission will touch the sky on time.

"We are as certain as we can be. The Confirmation Review last week went very well,” Mellott said. “Everybody on the review board seemed pleased the team demonstrated that they understand what has to be done and how to do it, and that they have the capability to do it. There is the full expectation that MAVEN will be ready to go on launch day.”

Schneider said there is nothing about the mission that worries team members at the Boulder lab.

“Everybody involved has done this kind of thing before, but not this exact combination,” he said. “We’re not surprised yet, and we hope not to be in the next couple of years.”

Despite his confidence in the technology, Schneider feared that there are factors out of the MAVEN team’s control that could delay the mission. Although NASA has already put more than $400 million into the mission, he thought funding could still be an issue. The launch vehicle for the spacecraft could cost up to $200 million, Jakosky said.

“With other projects, NASA has sometimes said, ‘We cannot afford all of your workforce,’” Schneider said. “So they might say, ‘Cut your workforce in half and take twice as long.’”

However, Mellott said money will not be an issue for MAVEN.

“Within the Mars program so far, we have been lucky enough to have sufficient resources to keep MAVEN on the path towards its scheduled launch,” she said.

0 Response to "NASA's MAVEN pushes to meet its launch date to Mars"