MAVEN: NASA's next mission to Mars

Mars Science Laboratory hasn't even managed to get to Mars yet, much less make a successful skycrane landing, but already NASA is hard at work on the next Mars-bound spacecraft: MAVEN, the the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolutio…N orbiter, winner of this year's award for most strained space-related acronym.

MAVEN's mission is to help solve one of the most important mysteries about Mars: what happened to its atmosphere? We're pretty sure that in the past, Mars had an atmosphere that was much more conducive to life, with plenty of CO2, nitrogen dioxide and water vapor. All of these volatile gases would have helped to keep the surface warm and moist, and we see evidence for this in the geology of the Martian surface. What don't know is where these gases went, since at the moment, the Martian atmosphere is just slightly thicker than diddly squat.

There are a few different things that could have happened to the Martian atmosphere. One likely scenario is that without a protective magnetic field (which Mars lost a few billion years ago), the solar wind gradually blew atmospheric gases out into space. Or maybe some of the giant impacts which Mars has been subjected to helped to blow huge chunks of atmosphere off the planet all at once. MAVEN's job is to spend some time wandering through Mars' upper atmosphere, measuring how much stuff is left and said stuff reacts with incoming solar radiation, with the goal of creating a model of atmospheric evolution. With such a model, planetary scientists can then run it backwards, and estimate what the Martian atmosphere was like a couple billion years ago and whether it might have been a good place for life.

MAVEN is currently under construction (and, remarkably, it's both on time and on budget), and if everything continues to go to plan, you can expect a November 2013 launch followed by a September 2014 arrival at Mars.

Also, NASA would like you to know that building satellites is hard. Much harder, in fact, than assembling office furniture, which is why it's put together the handy little video that you can see down below.

MAVEN, via SciAm

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