Mars Probe Beams Home ‘Tantalizing’ First Results

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which began orbiting Mars in late September to probe the planet’s thin atmosphere and help scientists understand what caused the planet to change from a warm, wet world to the cold and dry one it is today, has already beamed back some important new data.

MAVEN is still in the “commissioning phase” of its mission, meaning the probe has not started collecting science full-time. The new data were gathered as the spacecraft’s ground controllers began turning on its instruments after the probe entered into orbit around the red planet Sept. 21.

MAVEN officials said Oct. 14 that the first few weeks of instrument testing has already enabled mission scientists to create some of the most complete maps of atomic hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and ozone in the martian atmosphere ever made. One of MAVEN’s instruments even collected data as energetic particles blasted out by a massive solar eruption made it to Mars.

“What we’re seeing so far is really just a tantalizing teaser of what’s to come,” MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said during a NASA news conference to announce the initial results.

Scientists working with MAVEN were not able to see exactly how the solar energetic particles (SEPs) affected Mars’ atmosphere Sept. 29 because the instruments necessary for that kind of observation were not functioning in tandem at that time. MAVEN researchers expect, however, that the spacecraft’s instruments will be ready to observe the atmosphere during the next Mars-directed solar event.

“After traveling through interplanetary space, these energetic particles of mostly protons deposit their energy in the upper atmosphere of Mars,” SEP instrument lead Davin Larson of the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory said in a statement. “An SEP event like this typically occurs every couple weeks. Once all the instruments are turned on, we expect to also be able to track the response of the upper atmosphere to them.”

Scientists think that solar weather events could be partially responsible for the loss of the martian atmosphere over time.

Ground controllers are now moving MAVEN into its lower, science orbit in order to take more observations of the planet’s upper atmosphere and find out how some of it might be escaping into outer space. The probe should begin its primary science mission around the end of October, NASA officials said.

The $671 million MAVEN mission is also gearing up to watch a comet make a close flyby on Oct. 19.

Comet Siding Spring is set to give Mars a close shave when it flies within 140,000 kilometers of the planet. NASA’s fleet of spacecraft on and around Mars are planning to make observations of the comet’s flyby. MAVEN should be able to see how the comet’s flyby might affect the martian atmosphere, researchers have said.