December 15, 2014

Dr. G’s #AGU14 Spotlight – The MAVEN Mission to Mars

Posted by Laura Guertin

Each year at the fall meeting, AGU organizes a public lecture on a “hot topic” in Earth/space science.  Previous lectures can be found linked on the AGU website, including one on the Mars Curiosity mission.  This year, the city of San Francisco was able to attend an hour-long lecture on The MAVEN Mission: Exploring Mars’ Climate History, given by presenters Bruce Jakosky (Univ. of Colorado), Sandra Cauffman (NASA/GSFC), and Roger Yelle (Univ. of Arizona).  Announcements about this lecture could be found on the sides of city buses and trolley cars, and it was effective in bringing in a wide-ranging audience, including young kids excited to hear more about the red planet.

The lecture began with a welcome by AGU President Carol Finn.  She stated that the roughly 23,000 people at AGU this year were committed to sharing their research with each other and with the public – part of AGU’s mission.  Bruce Jakosky then shared the mission of MAVEN as an atmosphere-detection mission, trying to learn where all of the CO2 and water went from Mars by better understanding how solar winds strip off gas from the top of the atmosphere (Mars has an atmosphere that is only 1% as thick as Earth’s).  Jakosky brought us back to the beginning of this mission, when the ideas for the MAVEN project began 11 years ago.  He said that scientists always think of Mars in the context of Earth – why is Mars so different from Earth?  When Mars was warmer and wetter 4 billion years ago, why did it change to the cold and dry planet we see today?  And could Mars ever have supported life?  Although MAVEN is not a life-detection mission, there are important scientific outcomes that will help us understand the CO2 and water history of Mars, which can then help us think about the possibility of microbes.

The MAVEN spacecraft is equipped with fixed solar arrays and a range of scientific instruments in the categories of: (a) sun, solar wind, solar storms; (b) ion-related properties and processes; and (c) neutrals and ion plus evolution.  MAVEN was launched on November 18, 2013, and reached Mars 10 months later on September 22, 2014 (and it took 33 minutes for the rocket burn to slow down the spacecraft so it could enter the gravitational field and orbit Mars properly).  Cauffman shared that only 45-50% of the international missions to Mars have been successful, so the NASA team was thrilled to have MAVEN blast off on the first day of the launch window, and for MAVEN to reach Mars to begin its scientific mission.  Of course, there was a slight road bump (or space bump?), for the Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) had a very close flyby to Mars soon after MAVEN arrived on October 19.  Yelle stated that this scientific problem (all of the cosmic dust coming with Siding Spring) and opportunity meant that MAVEN had to duck and cover, literally move to the back side of Mars to protect the spacecraft yet still make science observations.

The science mission of MAVEN just began in November, but scientists have much to celebrate, beginning with MAVEN launching on schedule and under budget.  NASA is also seeing how the MAVEN mission is impacting people of all ages, including kids dressing as the MAVEN spacecraft for Halloween this year, and the numerous participants in the MAVEN Send Your Artwork to Mars contest.  There is no doubt that the future missions to Mars, such as the InSight rover in 2016 and Mars 2020 rover expected to return a Martian sample to Earth, will generate even more excitement for all global citizens (as well as the scientists) – and will no doubt be topics of future AGU Public Lectures!


Additional sources for exploration

NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio – HD-format MAVEN videos:

MAVEN National Air and Space Museum Presentation (~8 min video from November 8, 2013)

MAVEN site, University of Colorado at Boulder:

NASA’s Mars page:

MAVEN on Twitter (@MAVEN2Mars) and Facebook (MAVEN2Mars)