For more than four years, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has explored the mysteries of the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere. More recently, the spacecraft has gotten up close and personal with that same expanse of gas.
Earlier this year, MAVEN dipped into the highest reaches of Mars’ atmosphere over a two-month “aerobraking” campaign, using the resistance there to slow itself down in space and shift the dynamics of its orbit.
Those maneuvers ushered in a new era for MAVEN and for LASP, which leads the overall mission and the science operations for MAVEN, and built two of its instruments.
Science fiction writers have long featured terraforming, the process of creating an Earth-like or habitable environment on another planet, in their stories. Scientists themselves have proposed terraforming to enable the long-term colonization of Mars. A solution common to both groups is to release carbon dioxide gas trapped in the Martian surface to thicken the atmosphere and act as a blanket to warm the planet.
However, Mars does not retain enough carbon dioxide that could practically be put back into the atmosphere to warm Mars, according to a NASA-sponsored study led by LASP Associate Director for Science Bruce Jakosky. Transforming the inhospitable Martian environment into a place astronauts could explore without life support is not possible without technology well beyond today’s capabilities.
NASA has powered on its latest space payload to continue long-term measurements of the Sun’s incoming energy. The LASP-built Total and Spectral solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1), installed on the International Space Station, is now fully operational with all instruments collecting science data.
TSIS-1 was launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 15, 2017. After a two-week pause, the instrument suite was extracted from the trunk of the SpaceX Dragon capsule and integrated onto its permanent home on the space station.
How long might a rocky, Mars-like planet be habitable if it were orbiting a red dwarf star? It’s a complex question but one that NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission can help answer.
“The MAVEN mission tells us that Mars lost substantial amounts of its atmosphere over time, changing the planet’s habitability,” said David Brain, a MAVEN co-investigator at LASP. “We can use Mars, a planet that we know a lot about, as a laboratory for studying rocky planets outside our solar system, which we don’t know much about yet.”
At the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 13, 2017, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Brain, also a professor in the CU Boulder astrophysical and planetary sciences department, described how insights from the LASP-led MAVEN mission could be applied to the habitability of rocky planets orbiting other stars.
LASP research associate Nick Schneider has been awarded NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for his contributions to the success of NASA’s orbiting MAVEN mission now at Mars.
Schneider, also a University of Colorado Boulder professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences, is the lead scientist on the LASP-built Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) riding on NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft that arrived at Mars in 2014. LASP Associate Director for Science, Bruce Jakosky, is the principal investigator for the MAVEN mission.
NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal is given for individual efforts that have resulted in key scientific discoveries or contributions of fundamental importance in the field. Schneider was presented with the medal in a ceremony Oct. 31 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Deep in space between distant stars, space is not empty. Instead, there drifts vast clouds of neutral atoms and molecules, as well as charged plasma particles called the interstellar medium—that may, over millions of years, evolve into new stars and even planets. These floating interstellar reservoirs are the focus of the NASA-funded CHESS sounding rocket mission, which will check out the earliest stages of star formation.
CHESS—short for the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph—is a sounding rocket payload that will fly on a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket late in the night on June 26, 2017. CHESS measures light filtering through the interstellar medium to study the atoms and molecules within, which provides crucial information for understanding the lifecycle of stars.
Today, the LASP-led MAVEN mission has completed one Mars year of science observations. One Mars year is just under two Earth years.
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft launched on Nov. 18, 2013, and went into orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2014. During its time at Mars, MAVEN has answered many questions about the Red Planet.
Watching the sun is dangerous work for a telescope. Solar instruments in space naturally degrade over time, bombarded by a constant stream of solar particles that can cause a film of material to adhere to the optics. Decades of research and engineering skill have improved protecting such optics, but one crucial solution is to regularly recalibrate the instruments to accommodate such changes.
In mid-May, the seventh calibration mission for an instrument on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, will launch into space onboard a sounding rocket for a 15-minute flight. The instrument to be calibrated is called EVE, short for the EUV Variability Experiment, where EUV stands for extreme ultraviolet. EVE’s job is to observe the total energy output of the sun in EUV light waves. The calibration mission is scheduled to launch on May 21, 2015, on a Terrier-Black Brant suborbital sounding rocket around 3 pm EDT from White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.