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NASA spacecraft designed largely by UC Berkeley researchers passes crucial step

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FEBRUARY 13, 2014

Equipment on NASA’s newest Mars-bound spacecraft — designed largely by UC Berkeley researchers — recently cleared its initial checkout, fueling expectations that the mission will be a success.

Known as MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission is the first operation dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere. Though the spacecraft will not specifically search for signs of life, knowledge about Mars’ atmospheric history could answer questions critical to scientists’ understanding of the planet’s capacity to sustain life.

David Mitchell, project manager for MAVEN at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, explained the “holy grail” of the mission is to gain a better grasp of the habitability of Mars.

“That’s probably the biggest question in Mars research right now: Did life ever get a foothold on the planet — and if so, how can we verify that?” Mitchell said.

After launching the spacecraft in November, the MAVEN team had to wait several weeks for the gases that had accumulated in the craft to escape before testing the instruments, as some could only be operated in a vacuum.

Though the components were tested before launch, the team had to ensure the equipment continued to work properly throughout the turns and movements the instruments would undergo during the flight.

“Initial checkout is like a test drive in a new car,” said Janet Luhmann, a deputy principal investigator for the MAVEN mission at UC Berkeley. “You’re making sure that the guys who run the spacecraft can run it and know the temperature and all the systems are behaving properly.”

The mission’s recent triumph was particularly gratifying because the mission’s beginning stages were slightly more precarious. When investigators first started testing the instruments in December, they ran into a few “bugs.”

Co-investigator Greg Delory, a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley SSL, explained that the instrument he helped design — which measures electron temperature and density in the atmosphere — was running warmer than scientists originally anticipated. After conducting a detailed thermal analysis, he and his colleagues changed the angle of the spacecraft to reduce its exposure to the sun’s heat.

“It wasn’t a big deal because we built the instruments to be extremely rugged,” Delory said. “You could fry an egg on top of the sensor I built, and it would still work.”

But co-investigator Rob Lillis noted that in risky space missions, prudence is essential.

He explained that MAVEN’s next big milestone, firing the spacecraft into orbit around Mars, is where many previous missions have failed.

“Those are going to be a very nerve-wracking 37 minutes,” Lillis said. “We’re not worried, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be concerned.”

Nevertheless, scientists trust the mission will be successful. MAVEN is currently 12 million miles away from Earth and is expected to reach Mars by Sept. 21.

Contact Tahmina Achekzai and Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected].
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FEBRUARY 13, 2014


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