Mars orbiter sent down closer to the surface
NASA repositions its atmosphere mission in readiness for new role. Andrew Masterson reports.
NASA’s Martian atmosphere testing spacecraft, known as MAVEN, is dropping down to take a closer sniff – and getting ready to take on extra duties.
MAVEN, which is short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, has been in operation for four years. Its primary mission involves gathering data to help scientists determine if – and if so, how – the Red Planet lost much of its gases and water over time.
Up until now it has been in orbit around the planet at a height of 6200 kilometres. Now, however, NASA mission control has ordered it to drop down to 4500 kilometres.
The change in altitude will result in alterations to the atmospheric data it collects, but the primary reason for the shift is so that MAVEN can take on a new role as a critical link in the agency’s next Martian mission: a new rover set to launch in 2020.
The adjusted orbit will position it to operate as a vital communications link between the rover and Earth. The repositioning, which will be accomplished by carefully exploiting the faint resistance afforded by Mars’ upper atmosphere, will take several months to complete.
“It’s like using your cell phone,” says Bruce Jakosky from University of Colorado, Boulder, US, and MAVEN’s principal investigator. “The closer you are to a cell tower, the stronger your signal.”
Currently, the spacecraft completes 5.3 orbits every Earth day. In its new position, that number will rise to 6.8 – meaning it can receive and transmit data to and from the rover more often.
When first launched, MAVEN was predicted to remain operational for just two years. However, NASA now says its fuel load, managed properly, will last until 2030.
When not talking to the new rover, it will continue to inhale Martian gas.