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NASA’s MAVEN Already Beaming Back Data, Casts New Light on Mars’ Atmosphere

26 Sep 2014, 1:56 pm

maven_artist_concept

Photo credit: NASA

(An artist’s rendering of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars.)

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, or MAVEN as it’s know for short, spent more than ten months traversing more than 442 million miles to reach our distant red cousin.  MAVEN successfully entered Martian orbit Sunday, Sept. 21. And the purpose of the spacecraft’s  mission is to study Mars’ faint upper atmosphere, which has never been done before.

 NASA Administrator Charles Bolden explains it this way, “As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet.”

The MAVEN mission will also be an integral part of getting human ready to go to Mars by the 2030s.

And it looks like NASA scientists will be getting a jump start as images from the MAVEN orbiter are already streaming in, waiting to be analyzed. An image released by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space — located at the University of Colorado in Boulder — shows some of the elements that compose the Red Plant’s atmosphere.

nasa_maven_first_images

Photo credit: NASA

According to a NASA press release, “The image shows the planet from an altitude of 36,500 kilometers, in three ultraviolet wavelength bands.  Blue shows the ultraviolet light from the sun scattered from atomic hydrogen gas in an extended cloud that goes to thousands of kilometers above the planet’s surface.  Green shows a different wavelength of ultraviolet light that is primarily sunlight reflected off of atomic oxygen, showing the smaller oxygen cloud. Red shows ultraviolet sunlight reflected from the planet’s surface; the bright spot in the lower right is light reflected either from polar ice or clouds.”

Since oxygen has a higher atomic mass than hydrogen, it’s held closer to the surface of Mars.

The information gleaned from all the data sent back to Earth will help scientists plot the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. Giving researchers more insight into why much of the water on Mars’ surface went away  — only frozen water remains at the poles — and why the atmosphere slowly feathered away over millions of years.

MAVEN is expected to remain in orbit for at least a year.

MAVEN isn’t the only spacecraft to enter Mars’ orbit in recent days; India’s MOM spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 23. and it’s sending back true color images from the rust-colored planet.

Meteorologist Alan Raymond

 

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