NASA mission assisted by UC Berkeley scientists takes off for Mars

Robert Lillis/Courtesy

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More than 2,500 spectators held their breath Monday as NASA’s latest Mars-bound spacecraft took off with a deafening roar, beginning its 10-month journey to the Red Planet.

Called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, the mission launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and is designed to observe Mars’ upper atmosphere and its interaction with solar wind by detecting particles as well as electric and magnetic fields. MAVEN is projected to reach Mars on Sept. 22, 2014, and will be in orbit for at least one year.

“It is one of the most important missions in the Mars program,” said NASA spokesperson Dwayne Brown. “It will eventually give us answers that will help us one day send humans to Mars.”

MAVEN, with a “bargain” price tag of $671 million, will be the first spacecraft to look at Mars’ upper atmosphere, Brown added.

Approximately 10 scientists and 15 engineers from the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory built and designed about half of the instruments aboard MAVEN in conjunction with a University of Colorado at Boulder lab and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The project began in 2003 when scientists from the two universities teamed up to draft MAVEN’s proposal for NASA’s 2006 Mars Scout opportunity. MAVEN was selected as one of two finalists in 2007 before winning the competition in 2008.

Robert Lillis, an assistant research physicist at the campus lab and the deputy lead for one of MAVEN’s instruments, said the mission aims to characterize the state of Mars’ atmosphere, including the rate at which atmosphere is being lost to space.

“We would measure how the rates of atmospheric loss are changing today and try to extrapolate to see how these rates would have been in earlier times,” Lillis said.

The equipment built by UC Berkeley’s team consists of particle detectors that will measure the properties of solar wind and Mars’ upper atmosphere, he said.

According to Lillis, 4 billion years ago, Mars had a denser atmosphere, with water flowing on the surface and a warmer climate. Over time, the atmosphere became thinner, causing the planet to grow cold and dry.

Scientists know that some of Mars’ atmosphere could have either been absorbed into the ground or escaped into space. MAVEN can gather data that will help researchers determine which process was more important and how much atmosphere has been lost in total, Lillis said.

“What we can learn at Mars can be applied to Earth’s system,” he said. “It’s always useful to look at the same physics in a different lab — and Mars is a different lab.”

During the next 10 months, scientists will be testing the instruments by turning them on and making sure they function properly, as well as preparing data analysis tools, said Janet Luhmann, MAVEN’s deputy principal investigator from the campus lab.

“We’ve speculated about life on Mars for hundreds of years,” said Greg Delory, MAVEN’s science co-investigator from UC Berkeley. “We’re lucky to be living in a time when we can move beyond speculation — and use science and technology to address fundamental questions of how planets work.”

Contact Jessie Lau at [email protected].