Image: MAVEN
NASA
Artist's concept of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution probe, which will be designed, built and operated by a team from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
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updated 9/24/2008 7:23:23 PM ET 2008-09-24T23:23:23

A new NASA probe slated to launch in 2013 will take the most detailed look yet at the atmosphere of Mars.

A team led by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, will design, build and operate the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, an orbiter designed to study the upper atmosphere of the red planet and its interactions with the sun.

The win was billed as the largest research contract ever awarded to LASP, during a Sept. 15 press briefing it held here to detail the selection decision.

A consortium of groups led by LASP will build the $485 million MAVEN spacecraft and carry out mission operation duties. The team includes the University of California, Berkeley; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; and Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colo.

Ready to go
Set to launch Nov. 18, 2013, MAVEN should take about 10 months to reach Mars and enter orbit around the red planet on Sept. 16, 2014.

"We've got a team that's ready to go," said Bruce Jakosky, LASP associate director and principal investigator for the mission. "MAVEN is to study the upper atmosphere of Mars, how gas is lost to space and how the planet interacts with the sun and with the solar wind."

MAVEN will carry eight science instruments on board that are divided into three packages, Jakosky said, collectively making measurements needed to constrain that loss-to-space process.

"This mission is really about understanding the history of the Martian environment," Jakosky said. "Our goal is to understand how gases are lost to space today and how the processes responsible for that loss have operated over the last 4 billion years," he said.

Heritage of hardware
Cindy Schulz, systems engineer for the spacecraft from Lockheed Martin Space Systems, told SPACE.com that MAVEN's development, in order to keep costs low, will draw upon a heritage of Mars expertise at the company.

Schulz said MAVEN's structure and propulsion system are designed to be similar to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, now orbiting the red planet.

MAVEN will be the second mission of NASA's Mars Scout program, a recent initiative by the agency for smaller, lower-cost spacecraft. The first Mars Scout mission is the Phoenix Mars Lander, which launched in 2007 and now is operating on the red planet's surface. It too was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and is managed by Edward Sedivy, who now will serve as the spacecraft manager for MAVEN.

The LASP's multiphase MAVEN proposal was five years in development. Jakosky said that all of MAVEN's science instruments have heritage, and were picked for their ability to detail Mars' upper atmosphere and the interactions with solar wind.

"There have been a few scattered measurements, especially from [the European Space Agency's] Mars Express, and some of the Russian spacecraft that hinted at some of the processes. We know many of the processes are going on today, but we haven't had the simultaneous measurements that let us really understand how the processes operate ... and allow us to extrapolate back in time," Jakosky said.

High priority science
The selection of MAVEN will impact LASP in many ways — scientific, cultural, monetary and programmatic, said LASP Director Daniel Baker. "We have very much wanted to establish clearly through hardware leadership that we are at the forefront of Mars science. This win does that," he said.

Baker said the selection shows that a university team can compete and win in the current NASA culture. The larger slice of the funding coming to both LASP and Colorado is key, he added, with the programmatic partnership tie to Lockheed Martin and NASA Goddard expected to serve LASP well in the future.

Jakosky noted that the consortium of five institutions means that the MAVEN mission would bring some $60 million directly to LASP, with roughly $120 million provided to Lockheed Martin.

MAVEN was selected over another Mars Scout competitor: The Great Escape mission proposed by Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio. The Great Escape mission also was proposed to study Mars' upper atmosphere, including its dynamics and evolution, which has been check-listed as a high priority by the scientific community.

Delay and re-evaluation
In the first round of the Mars Scout 2006 competition, the MAVEN and Great Escape missions were down-selected for 2011 out of 26 proposals for further evaluation in a concept study phase.

However, in December 2007, NASA announced that the launch of the next mission in the Mars Scout program — originally planned for 2011 — was being delayed until 2013 due to an "organizational conflict of interest" that was discovered in one of the mission proposal team's Phase A Concept Study, NASA reported at the time.

"Because of the delay, we had the opportunity to re-evaluate how long we needed to make observations in order to obtain our science results," Jakosky said. "We wanted to propose a mission length that was tied strongly to the ability to achieve our science goals. In the end, we felt that one year was appropriate, and that was what we proposed."

Jakosky also noted that another factor is the declining solar cycle during MAVEN's mission, which would mean relatively few major solar events after one year of observations. "Thus, one year also meshed well with what we are most likely to be seeing," he said.

"MAVEN will be making measurements for one Earth year — which is long enough to give us accurate measurements of the entire region of near Mars space that is important to us," Jakosky said. Additionally, once in orbit around Mars, MAVEN is being equipped to operate as a telecommunications relay for future landers, he added.

The University of Colorado, Boulder, is the single largest university recipient of NASA research dollars in the nation, according to the space agency. In fiscal year 2008, it received roughly $56 million from NASA.

Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado, Boulder, underscored the fact that the MAVEN win is the largest single research contract in the university's history, with space studies being a critical piece of Colorado's space economy — which is second only to California. "We're quickly becoming a university of the universe," he concluded.

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