Back to Mars

English: Artist's Concept of MAVEN, set to lau...
Artist’s Concept of MAVEN (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every two years or so, the planets align in such a way that Earth can send projectiles to the planet next door, Mars. The launch window opened today and we sent an instrument the size of a school bus to study Mars’ atmosphere, past and present.

This story, from NBC Science Editor Alan Boyle, has a great description of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission. Here’s a quote:

The mission’s objective is to help scientists figure out how the Red Planet’s environment changed from a warm, moist place into the chilly wasteland it is today.

Previous missions — including NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been working on Red Planet’s surface for more than a year — have found ample geological evidence that Mars had enough liquid water on its surface to be hospitable to life billions of years ago. That’s not the case anymore.

“Something clearly happened,” (mission principal investigator Bruce) Jakosky said.

I missed the launch at 12:28 CST, but watched NASA TV’s coverage via Livestream and Spaceflight Now. This included the post-launch news conference where Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado declared that he’d had “Ten years of terror” putting this mission together.

NASA’s transparency and public outreach is pretty amazing. Proof: The news conference also featured questions from Twitter. Ordinary folks posted questions using the #askNASA hashtag.

It will be 10 months before MAVEN gets to Mars, but it may have some work to do along the way. If all goes well in the next couple of weeks, MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph could get pictures of Comet ISON coming around the sun. This would be cool too.

Best wishes, MAVEN. We look forward to some great science next fall!