Mars Probe Looks for Atmosphere 'Lost in Space'

September 21, 2014 // By George Leopold
Mars Probe Looks for Atmosphere 'Lost in Space'
NASA's latest Martian probe is fast approaching the Red Planet to begin exploring for the first time its upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the solar wind to determine why our once-watery planetary neighbour has evolved into a barren, frozen world.

If all goes as planned, MAVEN, for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, is scheduled to be inserted into an elliptical orbit on Sept. 21. Program officials said this week that MAVEN's current trajectory "looks good" as they continue to run simulated orbital insertions that include plenty of "what-if" scenarios.

Once in orbit around Mars, at least one "precautionary manoeuvre" is planned in October before MAVEN's main science phase begins in early November. At the lowest point in its orbit, the 37.5-foot-wide orbiter will be 93 miles from the Martian surface.

MAVEN is the first probe dedicated to studying the Martian atmosphere and climate in an attempt to determine the fate of the planet's ancient supply of liquid water and thick atmosphere. Scientists think the Martian atmosphere has been gradually slipping away into space over the last 1 billion years. They hope to use MAVEN's array of instruments to find out how and why.

"The goal is to come up with a better understanding of what happened to the Martian atmosphere and how planetary atmospheres evolve over time," explained Jim Morrissey, MAVEN instruments systems manager at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland.

MAVEN and the ongoing Curiosity rover mission are, among other things, trying to establish that Mars once harboured conditions suitable for life. Planetary scientists want to know why the Martian atmosphere and climate changed over time and how solar activity contributes to atmospheric loss.

MAVEN was launched from Cape Canaveral last November and is currently traveling at a speed of about 16 miles per second on a 10-month, 442-million-mile journey to the fourth planet in our solar system.

One of MAVEN's eight instruments, a solar wind ion analyzer , will measure the electrically charged particles in what's left of the Martian atmosphere to find out where it went and why. Most of the ions being measured will be within the solar winds. The ions interact with neutral

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