Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

Return to Newsletter Index

Red Surf Up

by Perry Pezzolanella

Spacecraft have flown passed, orbited, landed, and roved on Mars, but now is the time to surf Mars! No, there is no ocean on Mars, or even a drop of water to be found, so how is it possible that a spacecraft planning to be launched in a few months will hit the waves later next year and actually go surfing at the Red Planet?

MAVEN, the Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN mission is a new class of orbiting spacecraft that will be capable of skimming or surfing the upper atmosphere of Mars safely without danger of accidentally entering too deeply and burning up. It will sample the upper reaches of the atmosphere to study how the atmosphere is being lost. This type of mission is called an aeronomy mission and has been the desire of scientists since the beginning of Mars exploration. It was never a priority mission because it lacks the public appeal of an orbiter, lander or rover with high-resolution cameras. Now that the exploration of Mars has evolved far enough along where we are "following the water" and trying to detect any evidence of life, past or present, sampling the upper atmosphere to see how it evolved and how it could affect life has become important.

On September 15, 2008, NASA selected MAVEN, which was part of the now-defunct Mars Scout Program, as the Mars Scout 2013 mission. The three-week long launch window opens on November 18, 2013 and MAVEN is expected to go into orbit around Mars on September 16, 2014. It will go into an elliptical orbit from 3870 miles to only 90 miles above Mars. The mission will cost $485 million, not as expensive as most planetary missions these days, but robust enough to return excellent science. It will focus on collecting data about the atmosphere which includes determining the loss of volatiles such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water to space from the atmosphere through time; the state of the atmosphere and ionosphere and its interactions with the solar wind; the current escape rates of specific gases to space and the cause; and determining the ratio of stable isotopes in the Martian atmosphere.

Scientists will be able to use the data to extrapolate backwards in time to see how much atmosphere has been lost in the past hundred million years, and possibly as far back as one billion years. It will also be possible to determine which gases are escaping, how much, and how fast. This is especially important as methane has been discovered on Mars and can only originate from two sources, volcanoes or life. There may still be a few barely active volcanic vents on Mars so MAVEN's measurements will aid in determining the actual source of the methane.

MAVEN will be like a true surfer, feeling the atmospheric waves of Mars as it orbits as low as safely possible sensing density and air pressure as it conducts its samplings and experiments. A lot has been learned from Mars, but there is still much more. So it is time to catch a wave and surf Mars for more adventure and discovery!