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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

MAVEN Arrives at Mars

By Phil Plait

Mars has acquired a new moon: the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, spacecraft entered orbit around the planet at 02:26 UTC Monday morning.

Man, I never get tired of writing a sentence like that.

MAVEN spent just over 10 months plying the vacuum of interplanetary space after its launch in November of 2013. As it approached Mars, it fired its engines for a total of just over a half hour, changing velocity enough to transfer from a heliocentric orbit into one about Mars. The scale of such an accomplishment is hard to overstate; it’s an incredible achievement, and one we’ve done over and again.

And now MAVEN’s real job will begin. Oh, there’ll be a systems checkout for a while, making sure everything is working up to snuff. But then the science starts: MAVEN will analyze the atmosphere and space environment of Mars, its primary mission to understand just why Mars used to have a thick atmosphere, and no longer does. It’s understood that over the eons, the solar wind has eroded away the planet’s atmosphere—Mars lacks a strong magnetic field, which can deflect away most of the onslaught of fast subatomic particles from the Sun; Earth's relatively strong magnetic field is why its atmosphere has managed to stick around—but the details aren’t well determined.

And, for free, we get some very cool science by coincidence. On Oct. 19 the comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) will pass very close to Mars and may very well interact with its atmosphere. MAVEN will have a front-row seat to this event, and since it’s designed to study Mars’ air, it will be the perfect spectator for this event. What will we learn?

I’ll note that in just a day or so we’ll get to go through this again: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission is expected to arrive at the planet on Wednesday at about 02:00 UTC. Amazing, that we have two spacecraft arriving at a planet within days of each other.

Any time we send a probe into orbit around another planet, it’s cause for celebration. And with MAVEN we’ll get insight into Earth’s sister-that-isn’t. Why did Mars lose its air? What happened to the water on the planet? How does this affect what we know of Earth’s history, present, and future?

These are not small, trifling questions. These are among the biggest we can posit—we’re asking about the history of an entire planet—and they can be answered thanks to human curiosity, to human spirit, and, of course, to science.

I love this stuff.

Congratulations to NASA, to Lockheed Martin, and to everyone on the MAVEN team.

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