MAVEN’s approach to Mars studies will be quite different from that taken by recent probes dispatched to the Red Planet. Instead of rolling about on the surface looking for clues to the planet’s hidden heritage, MAVEN will orbit high above the surface so it can sample the upper atmosphere for signs of what changed over the eons and why.
The mission will be the first of its kind and calls for instruments that can pinpoint trace amounts of chemicals high above Mars. The results are expected to let scientists test theories that the sun’s energy slowly eroded nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water from the Martian atmosphere to leave it the dry, desolate world seen today.
“Scientists believe the planet has evolved significantly over the past 4.5 billion years,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN’s project manager for NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland. “It had a thicker atmosphere and water flowing on the surface. It wasn’t like Earth, but it was not like it is today.”
Before any of those studies can take place at Mars, though, the spacecraft will see a few months of intense launch processing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The MAVEN spacecraft, short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy where engineers and technicians are taking the first steps in getting it ready for launch in November.