NASA spacecraft designed in collaboration with campus lab arrives in Mars’ orbit

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NASA/Courtesy

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Cheers erupted from the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory on Sunday evening as a spacecraft designed largely by UC Berkeley researchers successfully fell into orbit around Mars.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, spacecraft recently completed its 10-month-long journey to Earth’s nearest neighbor and will officially begin its mission to study Mars’ evolution from a warm and wet planet into the seemingly inhospitable one it has become.

Researchers hope to find an explanation for the thinning of the martian atmosphere by detecting radiation and solar wind interactions and tracking escaping particles in Mars’ upper atmosphere. UC Berkeley researchers have collaborated for several years with scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder to design instruments and track MAVEN’s progress.

Campus researcher Gregory Delory remembered the moment of arrival as one of “relief and elation.”

“You’re really excited, because you’ve realized everything you’ve worked for is going to happen,” he said. “I like to stay optimistic, but orbit insertion is the second-most-dangerous thing aside from launch, so it’s not to be taken lightly.”

Scientists will now spend the next six weeks deploying various mechanisms to optimize MAVEN’s orbital operation. By the first week of November, it will have officially started systematic data collection.

The data, to be collected and archived in three-month intervals, will be made available to the public in hopes of drawing analyses from scientists worldwide.

G. Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, called MAVEN a “time machine” that would fill a very important piece in the puzzle of Mars’ history.

“The science is truly fundamental, because knowing the answer to the big question — ‘Are we alone?’ — requires space missions to answer, and Mars is the best place to look for the potential past emergence of life,” Hubbard said.

He reasoned that because the spacecraft has already passed two major milestones — launch and orbit entrance — there is a high likelihood that it may be the latest addition to the few successful missions to Mars.
If successful, MAVEN could provide insight into how planets form and how they evolve.

“An interesting question would be what would happen to Earth if we lost our magnetic field — would we have lost our atmosphere?” Delory said. “It’s kind of a preview of what could’ve happened to us if we weren’t so special here.”

One unexpected bump in the road may arise from a comet, Siding Spring, to draw near Mars soon. While scientists are not too concerned with hazards it may create for the spacecraft, they will be shutting down some instruments for about a week upon its arrival and using others to measure potential changes.

“We already have a special experiment that we hadn’t planned, courtesy of mother nature,” said principal investigator Janet Luhmann.

While the mission is currently funded by NASA for only one year, co-investigator Robert Lillis said the researchers will be applying for an extension, explaining that the spacecraft has enough fuel to last it several more years. If granted, scientists would be able to paint a much broader picture of a planet that, he said, will almost inevitably house humans.

Tahmina Achekzai is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.