MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN orbiter launched today, carries CU equipment

A Colorado-built Mars orbiter launched Monday at 11:28 MT.

The $670 million NASA mission is called MAVEN, for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN.

While previous space probes have found valleys, channels and ocean beds on the Martian surface, suggesting the presence of abundant flowing water in earlier times, this mission will look into where the water went and what led to Mars’ atmospheric depletion, according to Lockheed-Martin officials.

Specifically, the mission is designed to explore and understand how the loss of atmospheric gas has changed the climate of Mars over the eons, said CU-Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky.

A $20 million remote-sensing instrument built by the University of Colorado-Boulder will be on board. The remote-sensing equipment was created by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). The 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.

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.

Now that the spacecraft has launched, it will take MAVEN 10 months to orbit around Mars, likely arriving 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 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.