CU aims to penetrate Mars Imperial Defense Grid

In plume of smoke and applause, CU-Boulder-led MAVEN heads to Mars searching for clues of long-gone air and water


By Clint Talbott

The 440-million-mile trip to Mars starts with final countdown. Minutes before liftoff, the launch team clicks through a last check of critical systems.

“Propulsion,” a voice asks. “Go,” another replies.

“Hydraulics.” “Go.”

“Pneumatics.” “Go.”

“L02.” “Go.”

Twenty-six times, a system’s name is followed with a staccato, emphatic, “Go.” Words fly fast, and the volley sounds like a varying chant with one common plea: “… Go … Go … Go … Go … Go ….”

When the launch director declares the rocket “ready to launch,” people applaud, children squeal, scientists cry.

A final status check clears the mission’s two rockets and its spacecraft: “Go Atlas. Go Centaur. Go MAVEN.”

At liftoff, a puff of smoke becomes a plume. Light bursts from under the Atlas V rocket, which weighs more than 80 African elephants and exerts 860,200 pounds of thrust at full throttle.

The sound travels three miles from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41 to the 10,000 people watching from a safe distance at Kennedy Space Center. A low rumble becomes a deafening roar. The crowd roars back. Egrets flee.

Within five minutes of launch, the MAVEN spacecraft is 106 miles above Earth, a quarter of its launch weight and traveling at 11,700 mph, more than 11 times faster than a fighter jet. It will gain more speed and lose more weight as the second rocket, Centaur, ignites to further propel the satellite on its 10-month journey to Mars.

This is perhaps the most widely and closely watched moment of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN—or MAVEN—mission, which is led by principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The moment is moving, but it is just one point on a timeline that began 10 years ago, will follow a 10-month space journey and conclude with a year-long mission to determine what happened to the air and water that once existed on Mars.

MAVEN will gather data from the sky—in an elliptical orbit around the red planet—not on the ground as Mars rovers do. But how could a Martian satellite scheduled to arrive next September illuminate events 4 billion years ago?

Answering that question involves some background.

In the beginning

In 2003, Jakosky began developing the idea of developing a mission to Mars to explore an enigma. The Martian surface shows telltale signs of water: what appear to be carved riverbeds, the long-dried basins of lakes, the geological footprint of glaciers.

Bruce Jakosky, Principal Investigator for the MAVEN mission to Mars, addresses the crowd during the University of Colorado Alumni Association’s pre-launch reception in Floriday. Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

Further, Mars Rovers Opportunity and Curiosity have collected rock formations with small ripples and minerals “that could have formed only in the presence of water,” a NASA mission summary states.

But the Mars of today is too cold and dry for liquid water. Average temperatures are minus 64 Fahrenheit (though it can drop to minus 199 and rise to 80). Additionally, the atmosphere, which is mostly carbon dioxide, is too thin for liquid water, which needs warmth and pressure.

The atmospheric pressure at Mars’ surface is less than 1 percent of Earth’s.

When water flowed on Mars, the planet was warmer and its atmosphere thicker. Where did the water and air go?

Jakosky and other scientists postulate that the solar wind eroded the atmosphere over the course of a few-hundred million years. In the beginning, Mars had a planetary magnetic field, which it now lacks. Earth, on the other hand, has a planetary magnetic field that deflects most of the solar wind.

MAVEN was designed to study the boundary between Mars’ atmosphere and outer space, the NASA summary states. It will measure solar-energy input to the atmosphere, the composition of the upper atmosphere and the current rates of loss of atmospheric gas to space.

MAVEN is carrying eight instruments—two designed and managed by CU-Boulder faculty—to make those measurements.

When Mars lost its magnetic field, the air and water had two places to go, down or up—into the soil or into space.

Rovers have found minerals formed from carbon dioxide on the Martian surface, but “not enough to account for all the missing air,” NASA says.

Isotopes of remaining atmospheric gases hold another clue. An isotope is a form of an element with a different atomic mass. Lighter isotopes can escape into space more easily than heavier isotopes, and Martian rovers have found a low ratio of light-vs.-heavy isotopes.

That is evidence of “substantial” atmospheric loss to space.

MAVEN weighs 5,600 pounds, about the same as a large SUV. With its 129 square feet of solar panels unfurled, it is as long as a school bus.

Once it reaches Mars in September, MAVEN is scheduled to enter an elliptical orbit that ranges from 93 miles to 3,864 miles above the surface. Five times during the year-long mission, MAVEN will drop to 78 miles above the surface to take samples to the top of the lower atmosphere.

With these instruments in this range of altitudes, the hypotheses will be tested. “There are a lot of processes that we think may have played a role, and we don’t have the measurements to understand them today,” Jakosky told The New York Times.

Once measurements are taken, they are sent back to Earth via radio signals, which travel at 186,000 miles per second, the speed of light. The time for those signals to arrive here will range between four and 20 minutes, depending on the gap between Earth and Mars.

“What we are really trying to do is understand our relationship to the universe around us,” Jakosky told CU News Services. “That includes what it means to be alive and what it means to be a civilization. By exploring the universe, we are exploring the human condition.”

CU-Boulder is known as a center for space science. It has flown dozens of payloads aboard shuttle missions. It is the only public U.S. university to have designed and built instruments that have flown to every planet in the solar system and to the dwarf planet Pluto.

Twenty CU alums—19 from CU-Boulder—became astronauts. Sixteen of them flew on a total of 40 NASA space shuttle missions.

In 2008, Jakosky and his colleagues landed the biggest contract of CU’s history: a $671 million NASA grant to fund MAVEN.

CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, where Jakosky is a research scientist, oversees the science operations and data center, and education and public outreach. About 600 people have worked on the MAVEN mission, and about 150 of them are at LASP, which is on CU-Boulder’s East Campus.

Mission partners include NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, Lockheed Martin Corp., and United Launch Alliance.

Much of MAVEN’s economic multiplier effect benefits Colorado. Littleton’s Lockheed built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. Centennial’s United Launch Alliance provided the rocket and ran the launch.

Mars Imperial Defense Grid

The launch window opens on Nov. 18 at 1:28 p.m. EST at Cape Canaveral. Early that morning, Erica Ellingson, CU-Boulder associate professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences, gives a CU crowd a pre-launch run-down of what has gone before and what they are about to see.

Among the questions she answers is why MAVEN launches from Florida. Answer: The Earth is already traveling east at 840 miles per hour in Florida. Launching east gives the rocket a bit of extra velocity, and launching over the ocean is safer.

Two hours later, 52 buses shuttle thousands of people from the universities, the space agency, the private contractors and elsewhere to the viewing area, a strip of land with a clear view of Launch Complex 41. That, Ellingson notes, was also the launch pad for the 1975 Viking mission to Mars.

The NASA causeway feels like a gigantic picnic. People flee the sun and muggy, 80-degree heat and under large tents, small umbrellas and an array of hats. They endure long lines for barbecue and cold drinks.

But apart from a few anvil-shaped clouds, which could hurl lightning bolts and scuttle the launch, signs of worry are minimal. People are upbeat.

Nick Schneider, associate professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences, regularly notes that sending a spacecraft to Mars is not for the faint of heart. Schneider, co-lead of the LASP Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph on MAVEN, notes that space-faring nations have launched about 40 missions, “more or less,” to Mars.

Emphasizing that the odds of a successful Mars mission are less than 50-50, Schneider ticks off the number that failed and jokes: “The score now is Earth, 16; Mars Imperial Defense Grid, 22.”

Schneider is meandering through the crowd, now answering a question about how, exactly, the spacecraft will navigate away from Earth toward Mars.

Professors Erica Ellingson and Nick Schneider share a hug as MAVEN lifts off, heading toward Mars.

Schneider responds that hours after launch, the spacecraft will leave Earth’s gravity. “But the direction that it leaves Earth’s gravity depends on where our planet is and its location,” he adds.

Schneider’s daughter, sitting nearby, interjects that the spacecraft will never leave the Earth’s gravity.

OK, “Earth’s gravity becomes negligible,” Schneider concedes, adding: “At 16, she loves it when her father is wrong, even on a technicality.”

Across the water, MAVEN is enclosed in a space capsule atop two rockets, an Atlas V rocket for liftoff and a Centaur second-stage rocket for early space propulsion.

Nearby, Ellingson, who is married to Schneider, is herself being peppered with questions about the launch.

She acknowledges that space science seems more popular than other natural sciences. “Astronomy is the gateway science,” she quips.

Students sometimes “drop into” one of Schneider’s introductory astronomy courses, “and at the end of it, they go up to him and say, ‘It changed my life. I want to major in physics or the sciences now.’”

CU-Boulder has one of the largest astronomy undergraduate programs in the nation and perhaps the world, she adds. Because studying astronomy incorporates disciplines ranging from physics to biochemistry, students leave with a well-rounded education that they employ in subsequent careers including K-12 teaching, science writing, data analysis and financial services.

And it all stems from “this love we have for looking up in the sky,” Ellingson adds.

Waiting and watching

Christopher Fowler, a Ph.D. student in astrophysical and planetary sciences who works on MAVEN at LASP, is talking about the stage of interplanetary flight during which instruments will be powered on and calibrated.

University of Colorado Graduate Assistants, right to left, Christopher Fowler, Alexandra Truebenbach, Briana Ingermann and Andrew Sturner watch the launch of the MAVEN spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

The goal is to make sure they’re working in space and haven’t been shaken apart during launch.

Like Schneider and Ellingson, Fowler freely shares his feelings about the event he’s about to see. “Awesome. It’s exciting,” Fowler says. “I can’t quite believe it’s going to launch.”

CU Regent Steve Bosley is strolling with family at the water’s edge. He’s come here because of “tremendous pride in what we’re doing in Colorado and what we’re doing at CU.”

CU-Boulder’s role in MAVEN is, he says, “enormous.”

Bosley supports the space program and has for decades. He credits former CU President Arnold R. Weber, who served in the early 1980s, with boosting CU-Boulder’s aeronautical engineering program into the academic stratosphere.

Briana Wiederspahn, a 1999 CU-Boulder alumna who graduated with degrees in marketing and psychology, is in the crowd with Melissa Dahlman, who graduated in 1997 with a business degree focused on marketing.

They have never seen a launch before, but they chose to come because of CU-Boulder’s leading role in MAVEN, because they support the university and because they saw the launch as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The CU-Boulder Alumni Association invited all “Forever Buffs”—alums—to attend the launch.

Asked if they fall into the category of “space geeks,” Weiderspahn replies, “A little bit, yeah.”

Jeff and Jessica Gard, both CU-Boulder alums, are nearby. He graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1991 and law in 1996. She graduated with a degree in business in 1997 and earned her MBA in 2003.

They are here partly because they like the university’s alumni-outreach efforts, he said. “We also have a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old, and I really wanted them to be able to see this and learn from everything that’s going on,” Jessica Gard adds.

They do not see themselves as space fanatics.

But as they get older, the couple has become more involved with the university, which they hope their sons will attend. “I want them to go to CU, so I want to show them all the different things that CU has to offer,” he says.

In academe, things don’t get much more dramatic than a space launch.

Perspectives here and there

MAVEN lifts off at 1:28 p.m. EST Nov. 18, at precisely its first target time and date. By the time the applause abates and the crowds return to their buses, Atlas V has exhausted its fuel, separated and relinquished propulsion to Centaur’s first main engine.

By the time the CU-Boulder group assembles to hear Schneider and Ellingson make closing comments on the launch, the spacecraft has separated from Centaur.

CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano emphasizes yet another hurdle; on Sept. 22, 2014, the spacecraft is scheduled to enter Mars’ orbit. More nail-biting moments are coming.

But for now, Schneider, Ellingson, DiStefano and a room full of alumni and friends celebrate.

As he does in his courses, Schneider quotes Carl Sagan, who was inspired by an image of Earth from Voyager 1 as the spacecraft left the solar system. From 4 billion miles away, Earth is smaller than minuscule. Sagan wrote:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

And from the haiku contest commemorating MAVEN, Schneider quotes a pithy haiku:

“Red speck in our sky

We will fly to you to know

Blue speck in your sky”

Jakosky struck a similar chord in his 2006 book “Science, Society, and the Search for Life in the Universe,” in which he writes: “We are exploring our solar system and trying to understand the origins of life here and beyond in order to satisfy a deeply embedded human curiosity about the world.”

Jakosky also quotes the poet T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

December 2013

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