Tuesday, December 3, 2013

MAVEN Spacecraft Successfully Launches to Mars

At 1:28 p.m. EST, the MAVEN spacecraft began its 10-month journey to Mars orbit, launching aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Atlas V and the spacecraft have performed flawlessly in the early hours after launch. MAVEN’s “gull wing” solar arrays have deployed, sending power to the instruments onboard, and mission ground support personnel have confirmed the receipt of telemetry, indicating that communications with the spacecraft are proceeding as expected.
As of Nov. 25th, MAVEN operations are going smoothly with all spacecraft systems healthy. MAVEN uses 24-hour Deep Space Network communications coverage and all communication events have been nominal. The mission is now in its early cruise mission phase and the spacecraft is approximately 1.39 million miles (2.24 million kilometers) from Earth. MAVEN’s current Sun-centered speed is 73,497 mph. The next big milestone for the team is a planned trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) on Dec. 3, followed by the power up of the eight science instruments between Dec. 4 and Dec. 10.

“Thus far the MAVEN spacecraft has flown and operated as we had all hoped and planned,” said David F. Mitchell, MAVEN project manager. “There are some big events coming up in the days ahead but I couldn’t be more pleased with how the journey has started.”

Friday, June 21, 2013

Environmental Testing

Guy Beutelschies

Guy Beutelschies is the Chief Systems Engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company and MAVEN Flight Systems Manager

How do you make sure a spacecraft can survive in space?  Facing the sun, surfaces can get hotter than any desert.  In the shade, it is colder than any winter in Antarctica.  The vacuum of space can wreak havoc if you don’t use the right materials.  Launch is even tougher.  If you‘ve ever been lucky enough to see a launch in person, you can feel the vibration rumbling in your chest from over a mile away.  Now imagine what the spacecraft is experiencing as it sits on top of that “controlled explosion.”

The answer is testing, lots of testing.  We arrange the tests in roughly the same order as the spacecraft will experience in its mission.  That means we do launch first.  It may not be readily obvious, but the sound during launch is so intense that it can actually break things.  To simulate this, we put the spacecraft in a special test chamber with enormous speakers and crank up the sound to deafening levels.  Although it is tempting to play some Led Zeppelin, we use a noise spectrum that simulates the Atlas V rocket firing.

The next one is a vibration test.  We put the spacecraft on a large device called a shaker table that moves a plate back and forth to provide the vibration that the vehicle will get on the rocket.  After shaking it in the horizontal axes, we rotate the piston-like device on the shaker table so that it moves the spacecraft up and down.  It wasn’t easy for me to see the spacecraft we’ve spent so much time carefully building being shaken like that, but it was important to do.

Soon after launch, we will then deploy the solar arrays.  This is a tricky test on Earth because of the gravity down here.  We need to make sure gravity is not “helping” the arrays deploy during our ground testing.  To mitigate this, we turn the spacecraft and deploy the arrays to the side so that the hinges are perpendicular to the ground.  We also used special stands to support the weight of each array while allowing them to move freely across the floor as they deploy.   We follow the same process for deployment tests on the Articulated Payload Platform boom and the Solar Wind Electron Analyzer boom.

The third major environmental test involves radio waves.  Most of our regular tests use cables between the ground equipment and the spacecraft to send commands and receive telemetry.  During the mission, our only link to the spacecraft is through radio signals.  For this test, we set up a special acoustics chamber to block out all outside radio signals that might interfere, and then use special ground antennas to talk to the spacecraft antennas as if MAVEN were out in space.  The tests also make sure that the various portions of the spacecraft do not interfere with each other and that the radio waves from the ground do not interfere with equipment on the spacecraft.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft is lowered into a thermal vacuum (TVAC) chamber at Lockheed Martin, near Denver, Colorado. TVAC testing ensures that the spacecraft is able to withstand the temperature extremes it will  encounter during its mission to study the upper atmosphere of Mars. (Courtesy Lockheed Martin)
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft is lowered into a thermal vacuum (TVAC) chamber at Lockheed Martin, near Denver, Colorado. TVAC testing ensures that the spacecraft is able to withstand the temperature extremes it will encounter during its mission to study the upper atmosphere of Mars. (Courtesy Lockheed Martin)
The final environmental test is our biggest one.  The MAVEN spacecraft is put in a thermal vacuum chamber; think giant thermos bottle.  Once inside, we pump out the air and flood the hollow walls with liquid nitrogen which brings the temperature down to -290 degrees Fahrenheit.   Giant lamps in the ceiling simulate the direct heat from the sun. This test makes the spacecraft “feel” as if it’s in space. We spend several weeks in vacuum simulating the entire mission from the heat of the sun you get being near Earth, to the cold it will experience in the shadow of Mars.  It is almost as tough on the team as it is on the spacecraft because the test consoles need to be monitored around the clock for the entire test.  That is a lot of evenings, weekends, and graveyards shifts. 

This regimen of environmental testing may sound like a lot of work, but after spending years designing and building it, we want to make sure everything work correctly. If something needs to be fixed, we want to learn about it while it here on the ground. Once we launch, there is no bringing it back to the shop for repairs. These tests give us a lot of confidence that MAVEN will be ready for its launch on November 18th.

With the recent completion of thermal vacuum testing, the MAVEN spacecraft has now successfully completed and passed all of its environmental test procedures. The team will now focus on the remaining Launch Operations Readiness Tests (ORTs), a final Planetary Protection review, and a spacecraft pre-ship review in preparation for shipping MAVEN to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in early August.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A conversation about Education and Public Outreach

Stephanie Renfrow, MAVEN Education & Public Outreach lead & Laura Peticolas, EPO co-lead

Stephanie Renfrow (left) and Laura Peticolas lead education and public outreach efforts on behalf of MAVEN. In this joint post, the two leads discuss the program and what it means to them. (Courtesy MAVEN) 

Let’s start by asking a question: how is it that you know about Mars and current space exploration? For example, how did you come to find this blog posting?

The MAVEN Education and Outreach program is MAVEN’s way of reaching out to the public, students, and educational audiences to share the excitement and learning-power that surrounds a mission of this size. We do this through social media, classroom programming, teacher professional development, public lectures, museum programs, and every other way we can think of to spread the word. Do you ever wonder, who are the people who bring that information to you online, to the staff at the museums you visit, or to the teachers who spend time with your children?

In a nutshell, the answer is: that’s us! The EPO team for MAVEN works to find ways to bring the mission to you through every possible avenue (except via traditional journalists, which is the purview of Public Affairs). We are in many ways translators and educators. We translate the mission, engineering, and science in ways that teachers, afterschool providers, museum/science center staff, and others can use.

So, for MAVEN, we first did some research to uncover what audiences would most benefit from learning about Mars’ atmosphere. This research, together with our team’s expertise, gave us a starting point in selecting partners and projects to develop a full education and public outreach plan. With the plan reviewed, tweaked, and approved, we’ve been able to use it as our blueprint in developing and implementing the program you see.
We also work hard to understand perspectives from many different people and learn in what ways other NASA Mars missions have been successful in engaging people, perhaps people like you. We even tap into our non-science circles from time-to-time. Both of us talked extensively with family and friends about the Mars Curiosity rover and how it connects to what we do. While our personal networks “rediscovered” our professional lives as they asked us questions, we learned what Curiosity educational activities really caught their attention and made them want to learn more. We now can apply what we learned from these conversations and many others with people from around the country into our own MAVEN educational programs.

In addition to enjoying the opportunity to answer everyone’s questions, the Curiosity landing served as an incredible reminder for just how exciting exploration of Mars is to millions of people. In our view, we have the best job on the whole mission: we get to share how your tax payer dollars take us to new scientific and technical heights, while finding meaningful ways to connect with your sense of wonder and facilitate making personal ties to science and the learning process. It is thrilling to explore Mars. It is thrilling to share the new discoveries to kindle real people’s excitement for science and exploration!

Over the coming months, we’ll be highlighting some of our EPO programming here on the blog—stay tuned to learn more, and in the mean time, visit “Education & Outreach” at!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Did Solar Storms Blow Away the Atmosphere of Mars?

Janet Luhmann, MAVEN Science team
Dr. Janet Luhmann is a Senior Fellow at the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California Berkeley and the Principal Investigator of the IMPACT suite of instruments on the twin spacecraft STEREO mission. Currently, in addition to STEREO and the Cassini mission, she is studying Venus Express observations and helping prepare MAVEN for its upcoming investigation of the Martian upper atmosphere as one of the mission science leads. (Courtesy Janet Luhmann)

Humans tend to think that what is happening now represents the way things have always been. However, we know from our own experience and from investigations of the Earth’s past that there have been, and may still be, episodes of extremes, such as ice ages, major volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, catastrophic tsunamis and floods—some of which can happen several times in a short human lifetime. Cosmically, there have been asteroid impacts that changed Earth’s landscape and climate, and comet impacts that altered landscapes and brought materials to Earth while blasting others away. These episodes can individually and collectively alter the course of life on Earth or change the planet itself.

Mars is exposed to many of the same types of events, and like those on Earth, the details of their historical impacts are speculative and debatable. It is hard to be a history “detective” when the evidence is often hidden or destroyed over time. As a result, questions related to Mars’ current frigid climate and related thin atmosphere are the focus of space missions and theoretical thinking and modeling. We do know that Mars lacks a planetary magnetic field like Earth’s, and, as a result, has been exposed to additional natural assaults.

All of the planets in the solar system are submerged in a nearly continuous outflow of ionized hydrogen gas from the Sun. This “solar wind” is essentially the Sun’s outermost atmosphere. It flows outward because it is heated at its base and because the surrounding space is a relative vacuum. It is ionized because it is so hot—over a million degrees Kelvin—that the nuclei of the hydrogen atoms (protons) and their electrons cannot stay bound together. The resulting ionized gas, or plasma, also carries the solar magnetic field with it as it expands outward. We thus literally live in the solar atmosphere, but because Earth has a fairly strong magnetic field of its own, it is usually shielded from direct impact within a magnetic bubble called the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere deflects most of the solar wind around the Earth well above its atmosphere. Mars, however, is another story. 

The 2001 Mars Global Surveyor mission proved what earlier Russian missions hinted at—that the Martian magnetic field was too weak to prevent solar wind from penetrating its upper atmosphere. These Russian missions also found evidence that ionized elements from the Martian atmosphere were being carried away into the more distant reaches of the Solar System by solar wind. This “erosion” of atmosphere is currently being measured on the European Space Agency Mars Express spacecraft.

While it is apparent that atmosphere escape is occurring at Mars, the historical importance of that process is not as clear. In particular, if the rates of atmosphere escape measured by Mars Express occurred throughout Mars’ four billion year history, they would not have been enough to wipe away the early substantial Martian atmosphere.

For decades, other space missions have studied how solar activity related to sunspots and geomagnetic storms at Earth affect conditions in interplanetary space. Today we know much more about how variable the solar wind can be, especially around the maximum of the Sun’s activity cycle. For example, we know that coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or large eruptions of material from the Sun’s corona, can enter the solar wind. There, CMEs can produce disturbances that cause extreme solar wind behavior by increasing its velocity, density, and magnetic field. (While normal solar wind flows outward from the Sun at about 350 km/s, the disturbed solar wind may flow out at more than one thousand km/s.)

MAVEN will investigate what these extreme conditions do to Mars’ atmosphere erosion rates. The Mars Express measurements hint at increased rates, but energetic particle impacts on the spacecraft systems during storm events can compromise the measurements. The experiments on MAVEN have been specifically designed to definitively answer whether nature’s space weather storms increase atmosphere escape rates to historically important levels.

Of course, MAVEN will need major solar activity in order to do its job. MAVEN should arrive at Mars at a time in the solar cycle that is traditionally rich in major events. Our MAVEN team will keep watching both the Sun and Mars, making use of the great resources for space weather observations currently at our disposal. We are also particularly lucky that the STEREO mission is now observing conditions on the far side of the Sun, giving us the unique opportunity to effectively monitor space weather far from Earth—where Mars usually is and where MAVEN will be.

SOHO real time solar activity
SOHO, the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory, is a project of international collaboration between ESA and NASA to study the Sun from its deep core to the outer corona and the solar wind. The latest 48 hours worth of data are available as animated GIF movies (click image for current animation). The movies are updated every hour that scientists are in real-time contact with the satellite. (Courtesy LASCO/NRL/SOHO)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Preparing for Science Data

Dave Brain, MAVEN Science Team Co-Investigator 


The success of MAVEN hinges almost entirely on teamwork. As a scientist that uses data returned by spacecraft, it is sometimes easy for me to forget the number of people involved in making it possible for those squiggly lines of data to dance across my computer screen. After all, I simply need to load the data into my analysis software, make a plot, and learn something new about the planet I am studying (Ha! I laughed out loud as I wrote this because it is never this simple). I love doing this—a few times a year, as I look at my screen, I realize that I am the only person on the face of the Earth that has some new tidbit of information. The ‘A-ha!’ moment is an incredible rush, as is the period where I get to share the result with others.

Being involved in MAVEN has reminded me that science efforts are never independent. Thousands of people are working to make MAVEN successful. The instrument teams are testing and tweaking their instruments in preparation for delivery over the next few months to Lockheed Martin, where they will be incorporated onto the spacecraft. The spacecraft team has been working hard to get the many necessary components (electrical systems, communication systems, reaction wheels, etc.) onto the spacecraft, and preparing to receive the science instruments. I am in constant awe of the way in which these teams handle incredibly complex tasks and make them seem simple.

But what is the science team doing? After all don’t we need the data before we can do our work?

Dr. Dave Brain is a Co-Investigator on the MAVEN science team and serves as a science advisor for the Invisible Mars: Science on a Sphere education and outreach project. Dr. Brain is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. (Courtesy Allison Baker)

The science team has not been sitting idle. We are getting ready to use MAVEN data in a variety of ways. But working with spacecraft measurements is not always a straightforward endeavor. An enormous amount of a scientist’s time can be wasted on dealing with unorganized or unnecessarily complicated datasets. More time is left for making new discoveries when data are made easy to acquire and work with. MAVEN faces a particular challenge because data from all its instruments must be considered together in order to answer our main science questions (even the instruments need to work as a team!). But the datasets are fundamentally different. For example, some instruments make measurements at the location of the spacecraft, while others look at the atmosphere far from the spacecraft. These different datasets must all be well organized, and fit together in a way that the science team can easily get to their ‘A-ha!’ moments.

My job right now is to lead an effort to make tools for the science team that solve these challenges. For the past year we have been devising plans for tools that facilitate ‘Intercomparison and Visualization’ of MAVEN data. Over the next few months we will begin developing a web portal to the MAVEN data that will allow MAVEN scientists to view and obtain the spacecraft viewing geometry, data availability, and actual measurements in a variety of different ways. Users will be able to interact directly in the webpage with many of the plots, making our site a ‘first of its kind’ experience. In addition, we are building a ‘toolbox’ of especially useful software routines that can be used with MAVEN data, thus saving the individual scientists precious time developing their own routines. Importantly, both the web page and the software toolbox are tailored to using data from different instruments simultaneously.

Now that we have the tools designed, I’m excited to see them become reality over the coming months as developers and science team members collaborate on specific features and functionality. I am confident that we’re going to provide tools that make the scientist’s analysis tasks easier.

But it’s going to take teamwork.

Friday, September 14, 2012

MAVEN: Mars Atmospheric Loss

When you take a look at Mars, you probably wouldn't think that it looks like a nice place to live. It's dry, it's dusty, and there's practically no atmosphere. But some scientists think that Mars may have once looked like a much nicer place to live, with a thicker atmosphere, cloudy skies, and possibly even liquid water flowing over the surface. So how do you go from something like this--to something like this? NASA's MAVEN spacecraft will give us a clearer idea of how Mars lost its atmosphere, and scientists think that several processes have had an impact.

One way a planet can lose its atmosphere is through a process called "sputtering." In this process, atoms are knocked away from the atmosphere due to impacts from energetic particles. Watch this brief video to learn more:

Friday, August 31, 2012

The MAVEN Science Data Center

by Alex DeWolfe, MAVEN Science Data Center Manager

Alex DeWolfe is the MAVEN Science Data Center Manager at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. (Courtesy Alex DeWolfe) 

 I’m in charge of the Science Data Center (SDC) for MAVEN, part of the Science Operations Center at LASP. Our job is to store all of the science data produced during the mission in one place and make it easily accessible to all of the members of the science team, to generate preliminary plots of science data, and to make sure all of the science data is archived for future use and public access.

 The SDC is part of the MAVEN “ground system,” the network of institutions, people, computers, and antennas here on Earth that communicates with the spacecraft, controlling it and handling all the data it sends back. Once the spacecraft goes into orbit around Mars in 2014, after all the instruments have been checked out and we know everything is working smoothly, we’ll start collecting science data and beaming it back to Earth. We’re going to a lot of trouble to build a spacecraft and send it to Mars, and the science data is the point of the whole mission! An important aspect of MAVEN science is that we plan to use science data from all the instruments together to get the most complete picture of the atmosphere possible. In order to do that, we have to have all of the data available to the entire team simultaneously. The MAVEN team is made up of a lot of people at different places around the U.S. and the world, and we need to have a central library of data where all of the team members can get the latest data products.

You might think that the bits come back from the spacecraft and go straight to the scientists, or that everything is processed in one central location. In reality, what the spacecraft sends us is a very low-level form of data that has to be refined before it’s usable by the science team. First, the “telemetry,” the stream of bits coming from the spacecraft, is collected by the Deep Space Network (DSN), using their worldwide network of huge radio antennas. The DSN hands the data off to the Mission Support Area at Lockheed Martin, which is responsible for spacecraft operations. They send the science and instrument data to us at the Science Operations Center, where we process the telemetry into a slightly more usable form.

The MAVEN Science Data Center is part of the Science Operations Center at LASP, where MAVEN science data will be stored, accessed by the science team to generate preliminary plots of science data, and archived for future use and public access. (Courtesy LASP) 

 The Payload Operations side of our group manages the instrument operations, making sure the instruments are working properly and planning upcoming observations. Meanwhile, the science data and a little bit of spacecraft data go into the storage system here at the SDC. We do some processing to generate “quick-look” plots, to give the science team a first look at the science data from the past few days, and then we make sure that all the data the team needs for more advanced processing is present and accounted for. We have to keep the data safe—we can’t have losses from hard drive crashes or power failures—but we also have to get it to the rest of the team as soon as possible.

After the rest of the team gets their hands on the data they need, they then turn it into real “science products.” These are mostly data files, which they can use to examine and compare various quantities that we’re measuring at Mars. These files are delivered back to the SDC, where we can keep them safe and share them with the rest of the team. After the first few months of the mission, we’ll come to another SDC task: sending the science data to the Planetary Data System, where it is permanently archived and made available to the wider scientific community.

I joined the MAVEN team as we were just starting to design the SDC systems, and now we’re starting to set up hardware and write software. It’s been fun so far, but I’m really looking forward to the next few years, in which we’ll put together the whole SDC and start operating it as MAVEN arrives at Mars. I feel tremendously fortunate to be part of this exciting mission.