November 18, 2017

September 2013-Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: Touching Mars

A fragment of the Zagami meteorite!

It’s a long journey, from the shores of the Florida Space Coast to the surface of Mars. This past week, we made the journey from Astroguyz HQ in Florida to the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASC) to attend the New Media Workshop in Boulder, Colorado for the upcoming launch of MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission.

As a freelance science writer, we only get to attend these sorts of events a few times a year, and we’re glad we made the effort to attend the MAVEN workshop in person.

MAVEN is probably the Mars mission that you aren’t following, but should be. Orbiters don’t tend to get the same press as laser-equipped, nuclear-powered rovers landed via sky crane. True, there may be no ”moment of terror” or eye-candy imagery, but MAVEN seeks to answer some key questions in the formation and evolution of the Red Planet.

“We want to rewind the movie and see what happened as Mars aged,” said planetary scientist Mehdi Benna. MAVEN will seek to do just that, using a highly elliptical orbit in an attempt to characterize the puzzle that is the Martian atmosphere.

To our surprise, we learned that the familiar picture of an internally cooling Mars which lost its magnetic field, allowing the solar winds to strip its atmosphere away is far from proven. MAVEN will seek to characterize just what an early Mars might’ve been like. We see evidence for flowing water on the surface in the form of erosion… this suggests that atmospheric pressures had to be higher in the past and, just perhaps, life might’ve had time to have taken hold.

We also heard from Janet Luhmann of the Space Physics Research Group at the University of California at Berkeley on how the photo-chemistry process present on Mars is tied to the ebb and flow of the 11-year solar cycle. This is even more crucial than on Earth, as modern day Mars lacks a magnetic field, allowing the solar wind to directly interact with its tenuous atmosphere.

We also got to hear from planetary scientist and author Dr. Nick Schneider and Primary Investigator on the MAVEN mission Bruce Jakosky. In a brief aside with Mr. Schneider, we got to ask him about the necessity of Earth’s Moon in the evolution of life on Earth. He doesn’t pay much credence to the “Rare Earth” hypothesis, noting that a magnetic field, plate tectonics and a large stabilizing Moon might be niceties, but not essentials in the evolution of life on other worlds.

Our tour of the LASP lab conducted by director of Mission Operations and Data Systems Bill Possel was fascinating as well. LASP has fielded instruments to every planet over the past 50 years, and will check off Pluto in 2015 when New Horizons makes its historic flyby. We got to see the control room of the Kepler Space telescope, which may soon be the home of operations receiving data from the B612’s Sentinel space telescope as it hunts for hazardous asteroids. The X-ray Irradiance Sensor (EXIS) was also in the lab, ready to launch on the GOES-R mission set for October 2015.

And all too soon, the weekend was over, as we, like MAVEN, departed Colorado for Florida. But MAVEN’s adventures and our own haven’t stopped there, as we plan to attend the launch of MAVEN from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V rocket in a 401 configuration on November 18th of this year.

And yes, we got to hold a piece of the Mars Zagami meteorite in our hands! We’d love to report that it brought forth visions of crystalline canals and Bradbury’s golden bee-armed Martians, but in the words of Charlie Brown, it was “just a rock.” But what a rock, when you consider its history and the improbable journey that it took to make it to the LASP conference!

Thanks for a wonderful and informative weekend to all who made the MAVEN new media workshop a huge success!

-Follow MAVEN on Twitter as @MAVEN2Mars.

-Didn’t get your haiku selected? You’ve still got until September 10th to send your name to Mars!

 

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  1. [...] space over the last few billion years,” principle investigator Bruce Jakosky told us during a recent press visit to the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. MAVEN will [...]

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