MAVEN Launches for the Red Planet

MAVEN thunders into the Florida sky as seen from Kennedy Space Center. Photo Credit: Jon Brack

When MAVEN fires its thrusters and settles into Martian orbit next September, it will join a celebrity list of spacecraft already studying the red planet. Its launch today from Cape Canaveral, Florida, was a major step toward that goal, one that propels the satellite onward to its own fame during a year-long mission studying the atmosphere of Mars. (See “Top 5 Challenges in Store for Mars MAVEN Mission.”)

While the Curiosity rover maneuvers up the rocky slopes of Mount Sharp and the Opportunity rover investigates the rim of Endeavour Crater, MAVEN will orbit overhead analyzing the remnants of an atmosphere that once allowed for abundant liquid water to flow on the now barren terrain where they both explore. It will also join a network of satellites tasked with relaying those rovers’ data back to Earth, often a bottleneck in the interplanetary communication process.

The launch today happened on schedule at 1:28 p.m. Eastern Time, the first opportunity of a launch window that extended into December if necessary. After that, the planets would no longer be aligned in a way that a transit between them would be possible, at least until 2015. The weather forecast also worsens for the next few days, so there was a sigh of relief accompanying the shockwave of sound when the rocket roared upward and disappeared into the clouds.

It’s theorized that over hundreds of millions of years, the outflow of energetic particles from the sun, known as solar wind, has slowly eroded the Martian atmosphere and thus changed the planet’s environment. All other recent missions have established geologic evidence of surface water on an ancient Mars, but none can conclusively determine where it has gone. MAVEN will investigate the current effects of solar wind on the atmosphere to model what might have happened historically. The mission is led by principal investigator Bruce Jakosky from the University of Colorado.

MAVEN with both solar arrays deployed one last time before being enclosed in its payload fairings and hoisted onto the Atlas V rocket for launch. Photo Credit: Jon Brack
MAVEN with both solar arrays deployed one last time before being enclosed in its payload fairings and hoisted onto the Atlas V rocket for launch. Photo Credit: Jon Brack

Visiting MAVEN two months ago in the cleanroom at Kennedy Space Center during preparations for launch involved donning a blue bunny suit and thoroughly scrubbing all camera equipment. The satellite is surprisingly massive to witness in person: 37.5 feet (11.43 meters) from tip to tip, or about as wide as a school bus is long. Centrally mounted, the 6.56 foot (2 meter) diameter high-gain antenna dish was already covered in protective insulation for the hazards of space.

Instead of lying flat, the open solar arrays are angled 20 degrees inward on both ends to self-stabilize the satellite during dips into Mars’ upper atmosphere, an effect similar to the behavior of the feathers on a badminton shuttlecock. MAVEN’s elliptical orbits are designed to encounter different regions surrounding Mars to study where solar wind would have the most effect on the atmosphere. As a result, the orbits will routinely rise to around 3,860 miles (6,220 kilometers) and drop to about 93 miles (150 kilometers) all around the planet.

The angled solar arrays will be most helpful during the five planned “Deep Dip” campaigns that will lower even further to an altitude of just 77.6 miles (125 kilometers), where air pressure is 30 times denser.

MAVEN's waits atop its Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 41 the afternoon before launch. Photo Credit: Jon Brack
MAVEN waits atop its Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 the afternoon before launch. Photo Credit: Jon Brack

MAVEN now heads to Mars alongside India’s Mangalayan Mission (see “India Shoots for Mars”), the country’s first Mars project, which is designed to study the planet’s composition while looking for atmospheric methane. The next NASA missions to Mars are scheduled for launch in 2016 and 2020.


Related Links:

Immersive Panoramic Space Shuttle Tour

Space Shuttle in Extreme Detail: Exclusive New Pictures


  • Robert Tippi.

    Nasa get smart. There is no life on Mars, and there never was any .And there is no life in any other planet in the whole vast universe. Life was created not evolved the proof is right before our eyes.right here on planrt earth. But thank you for the tour of some of the universe it is very intresting and wonderfull, But all that you are discovering is exactly what the Bible has already revealed that all planets lay waste and desolate. and all the planets that are being discovered are witnesses against the theory of evolution.

  • Ima Ryma

    Maven, an expert trustably.
    So MAVEN – Mars Atmosphere and
    Volatile Evolution be
    Fit acronym to understand
    Why the red planet’s atmosphere
    Seems to rise and is lost in space.
    What makes the gases disappear,
    Leaving Mars a cold barren place?
    Is it a lost magnetic field,
    Or effects of the solar wind?
    Are these secrets that Mars will yield?
    MAVEN journeys to comprehend.

    Expert on Mars air has real worth.
    The same fate could happen on Earth.

  • Chris Dube

    Apparently there is no shortage of close minded people on this planet who believes our solar system is the entire universe. Well said Robert.

  • Lindsay S.

    @Robert Tippi, Oh my… reading your comment hurt my eyes… Stop the madness!!

  • Richard McGinty

    Thank you for your narrow minded comments Tippi…Even the Pope would disagree with you…Perhaps you can run for some sort Republican Seat in The Good Ole USA! They NEED more guys like you!

  • James M. Essig

    We need to start looking for alternative homes for our speoies. To this end I have authored a number of books on how we may travel to other stars using relativistic rocket flight My first book is Call Of The Cosmic Wild: Relativistic Rockets For The New Millennium available from Amazon and also Outskirts Press. I have 14 additional books on interstellar travel and I am in the process of writing two more.

    However, we also as a nation should undertake a bold manned Mars mission program. We need concrete objectives and planned schedules to meet these objectives.

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