Wednesday, September 17, 2014

NASA Maven: Set to slide into orbit around Mars

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft is quickly approaching Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere. 

When it arrives on September 21, 2014, MAVEN's winding journey from Earth will culminate with a dramatic engine burn, pulling the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit.

On Sept. 21, 2014, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft will complete roughly 10 months of travel and enter orbit around the Red Planet.

The orbit-insertion maneuver will be carried out as the spacecraft approaches Mars, wrapping up an interplanetary journey of 442 million miles (711 million kilometers).

Six thruster engines will fire briefly for a “settling” burn that damps out deviations in pointing.

Then the six main engines will ignite two by two in quick succession and will burn for 33 minutes to slow the craft, allowing it to be captured in an elliptical orbit.

This milestone will mark the culmination of 11 years of concept and development for MAVEN, setting the stage for the mission’s science phase, which will investigate Mars as no other mission has.

“We’re the first mission devoted to observing the upper atmosphere of Mars and how it interacts with the sun and the solar wind,” said Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for MAVEN at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

These observations will help scientists determine how much gas from Mars’ atmosphere has been lost to space throughout the planet’s history and which processes have driven that loss.

Procedures to line up MAVEN for proper orbit insertion began shortly after MAVEN launched in November 2013. These included two trajectory-correction maneuvers, performed in December 2013 and February 2014.

MAVEN's instrument payload
Calibration of the mission’s three suites of science instruments, the Particles and Fields Package, the Remote Sensing Package and the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS), was completed during the cruise phase to Mars.

“Every day at Mars is gold,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN’s project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“The early checks of instrument and spacecraft systems during cruise phase enable us to move into the science collection phase shortly after MAVEN arrives at Mars.”

The voyage also gave the team an opportunity to take data on the interplanetary solar wind using the Fields and Particles Package.

Meanwhile, teams in California, Colorado and Maryland carried out rehearsals of the entire orbit insertion twice.

The science team also performed a weeklong simulation of the planning and implementation required to obtain science data. Two months prior to arrival at Mars, all instruments were turned off, in preparation for orbit insertion.

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