CU-Boulder proposal selected as finalist for mission to probe past climate of Mars

NASA has selected a team led by the University of Colorado at Boulder as one of two finalists for an orbiting space mission slated to launch in 2011 to probe the past climate of Mars, including its potential for harboring life over the eons.

The team, led by CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, will receive $2 million from NASA for a nine-month “Phase A” study for the proposed Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, or MAVEN.

MAVEN was proposed as part of NASA’s Scout Program, which has a cost cap of $475 million. The second proposal selected for further study is led by the Boulder office of the Southwest Research Institute, headquartered in San Antonio. The winning proposal is expected to be selected for flight in about one year.

The CU-Boulder proposal includes a spacecraft with 10 instruments that will focus on the upper atmosphere of Mars, said LASP Associate Director Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for MAVEN. LASP would have overall responsibility for the mission, including providing two instruments and half of a third instrument. LASP also would provide science operations for the mission and managing the education and outreach program, he said.

Partners on the LASP proposal include NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Lockheed Martin Corp. of Denver, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan. Lockheed Martin would provide the spacecraft, as well as mission operations, for the MAVEN mission.

“We think we have proposed a first-rate mission with outstanding science and outstanding partners, and are extremely excited about the NASA announcement,” said Jakosky, an internationally known Mars expert. “Scientists have a lot of questions about the loss of water and carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere over time, which have implications for the possibility of past or present life there.”

LASP Director Daniel Baker, one of the science team members on MAVEN, described it as “a telescope-microscope mission that will allow scientists to piece together an entire picture of the Martian atmosphere. We want to better understand how the Mars atmosphere evolved, its present state, and what we might see happening there in the future,” he said.

The MAVEN science team includes three LASP scientists heading instrument teams — Nicholas Schneider, Frank Eparvier and Robert Ergun — as well as a large supporting team of scientists, engineers and mission operations specialists.

If selected for flight, MAVEN would include participation by a number of CU-Boulder graduate and undergraduate students in the coming years, said LASP faculty member Fran Bagenal, a member of the MAVEN science team. Currently there are more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students working on research projects at LASP, providing training for future careers as engineers and scientists, she said.

The MAVEN effort also would bring together undergraduate data teams from across the nation to help analyze mission results, Baker said.

Multiple lines of evidence suggest that Mars lost most of its atmosphere several billion years ago, said Jakosky. The MAVEN orbiter would study current atmospheric loss with emphasis on the role of the solar wind, including its rapidly moving charged particles and magnetic field that may be responsible in large part for the current atmospheric conditions on the Red Planet, he said.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program was designed to help characterize and understand Mars as a dynamic system, including its present and past environment, climate cycles, geology and biological potential. The Mars Exploration Program is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.