CU scientists build key sensing-equipment for NASA's MAVEN mission to understand Mars' atmosphere

MAVEN mission will launch in November 2013

BOULDER, Colo. - A $20 million remote-sensing instrument built by the University of Colorado-Boulder has taken another step toward its November 2013 launch on a NASA spacecraft for a mission to understand how Mars might have lost its atmosphere.

The remote-sensing equipment, created by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), has been delivered to Lockheed Martin in Littleton, where it will be in installed on the spacecraft bound for Mars, CU officials said Friday.

The $670 million NASA mission called MAVEN, for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, is being led by CU-Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky.

The mission is designed to explore and understand how the loss of atmospheric gas has changed the climate of Mars over the eons, said Jakosky, who is also associate director of LASP.

Clues on the Martian surface, including features resembling dry lakes and riverbeds as well as minerals that form only in the presence of water, suggest that Mars once had a denser atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface, Jakosky said.

The remote sensing package consists of an Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph, or IUVS, as well as its electronic control box, the Remote Sensing Data Processing Unit, or RSDPU. CU built both under contract to NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

With the delivery of this package, we are shifting from assembling the basic spacecraft to focusing on getting the science instruments onto the spacecraft," said Jakosky, who is also a professor in the geological sciences department. "This is a major step toward getting us to launch and then getting the science return from the mission."

The IUVS collects UV light and spreads it out to be recorded using imaging detectors, said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager from NASA Goddard. As the "brains" of the instrument package, RSDPU receives and executes commands telling the IUVS when and where to point.

"As the 'eyes' of the remote sensing package, the IUVS allows us to study Mars and its atmosphere at a distance by looking at the light it emits," said Nick Schneider, a LASP research associate and lead IUVS scientist for MAVEN.

The MAVEN spacecraft will also carry two other instrument suites. The Particles and Fields Package, built by the University of California Berkeley Space Science Laboratory with support from LASP and NASA Goddard, contains six instruments that will assess the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, provided by NASA Goddard, will measure the composition and isotopes of neutral ions.

"Three of the big milestones in an instrument builder's life are the day you get selected to fly on a mission, the day you deliver the instrument to the spacecraft to get ready for launch, and the day that it gets where it's going and data starts flowing back from space," said Mark Lankton, the remote sensing package program manager at LASP.  "The remote sensing team is really happy to have gotten to the second milestone, and we can hardly wait to reach the third."

MAVEN is slated to enter orbit around Mars in September 2014. After a one-month checkout period, it will make measurements from orbit over one year.

The MAVEN science team includes three CU scientists who will be heading the instrument teams -- Schneider, Frank Eparvier and Robert Ergun -- as well as a large supporting team of scientists, engineers and mission operations specialists. MAVEN will also include participation by CU graduate and undergraduate students in the coming years.

CU's participation in Mars exploration projects goes back to 1969 when NASA's Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 missions launched.