This coming Sunday night (September 21st 2014) just before 10pm eastern time the MAVEN spacecraft will perform a 33-minute maneuver and drop into orbit around Mars. MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Mission) was launched from Kennedy Space Center on November 18, 2013. MAVEN holds a special place in my heart for a couple of reasons. For starters, MAVEN was my 1st launch to work as an Integration Engineer with NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP). I've been with LSP since 2001, but for most of that time I had been working as a Flight Design Engineer (designing trajectories for rockets). Before I came to Florida I was working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) designing maneuvers for spacecraft (maneuvers much like the maneuver MAVEN is doing tomorrow night). When I was assigned the MAVEN mission it was only about a year before launch and normally as an Integration Engineer we start working the mission 2-3 years before launch. However, I had a small advantage...I already knew most of the people on the MAVEN Project team. A few years ago I did a 3-month rotational assignment at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. and was assigned to the Planetary Sciences Division (which, you guessed it, is in charge of planetary science missions). Much of the work I did that summer in D.C. was for the MAVEN mission. So when I was assigned as the Integration Engineer for MAVEN I was pretty excited to get to work with the MAVEN team again. Being an Integration Engineer is a very unique job. We are essentially the NASA engineer that is responsible for making sure the spacecraft is integrated onto the rocket properly. A lot of activities are done at the launch site to ensure both the spacecraft and the launch vehicle are ready to launch. Some of those activities are done separately and some of them are done together. It the the activities that are done together (the integrated activities) that I am focused on.
So enough about my connect with the mission, what is going on tomorrow night? NASA Goddard has a short article that explains what is going on and in that article they have the info graphic below:
Essentially, the MAVEN spacecraft must slow down in order to stay in the vicinity (i.e. in orbit) around Mars. Some spacecraft will use the Martian atmosphere to slow down, but MAVEN is using traditional rocket engines to slow down. More than half of all the propellant that MAVEN has will be used for this single maneuver. After the burn is complete MAVEN will be orbiting Mars. It will take some time for the team to slowly configure the spacecraft for taking the scientific measurements (i.e. turning on and configuring instruments) as well as tweaking the orbit a bit. In fact, MAVEN is doing something very unique for part of the time while it is in orbit around Mars. For portions of its mission it will lower its orbit and "dip" into the atmosphere to take measurements...taste the atmosphere if you will!
Rather than go into a ton of details about the mission I figured I would try and answer a few questions people might have about the maneuver tomorrow night and the mission in general:
Why does MAVEN have to slow down to orbit Mars? I thought you had to go really fast to go to another planet?
When MAVEN launched from Kennedy Space Center, the rocket put MAVEN on what is called an "escape trajectory" from Earth. This means that MAVEN was moving fast enough to escape the pull of Earth's gravity and go somewhere else in our solar system (in this case to Mars). But just like when it took energy to escape the orbit of one planet it takes energy to enter the orbit of another. If MAVEN did nothing then it would simply just keep flying right on by Mars. Right now MAVEN is moving fast enough that the only object in the solar system that has any real significant effect on it is the Sun. MAVEN must slow down enough so that the gravity of Mars becomes the dominating factor in MAVEN's motion (i.e. it will be orbiting Mars).
Why doesn't MAVEN just land on Mars?
MAVEN was sent to Mars to study the Martian atmosphere. NASA is very interested in not only the current conditions on Mars but also the very distant past. Long ago Mars used to have an atmosphere much like ours here on Earth. Today it is much "thinner". So where did the atmosphere go? Mars also used to have quite a bit of water on its surface. Where did the water go? MAVEN wants to learn as much as it can about the atmosphere of Mars so scientists can use that data to figure out what happened to the atmosphere, the water and learn more about what Mars was like in the distant past. It's easier to learn about the Mars atmosphere from orbit than it is on the surface. If you land on Mars and want to take atmospheric samples you have to move. From orbit you can take samples from all over the planet.
How to watch
NASA live coverage of the Mars orbit insertion maneuver will be covered on NASA TV here from 9:30 pm eastern until 10:45 pm eastern. The coverage will be held in Littleton, Colorado which is "mission control" for the MAVEN spacecraft. They will have live camera views of mission control as well as interviews with NASA people on hand for the event. The Mars orbit insertion burn is set to begin at around 9:50 pm and will be complete 33-minutes later. There are several twitter accounts you can follow as well (@NASA, @MAVEN2Mars and @NASASocial). If you want to engage with NASA and others on twitter use the hashtag #MAVEN and if you have questions for the people being interviewed ask them on Twitter with the hashtag #askNASA.
You can guarantee I will be glued to the TV and on twitter, so join me. Good luck MAVEN!!!