NASA's MAVEN is currently orbiting Mars studying the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet.
- In early 2019, MAVEN was shifted to a lower orbit to prepare it to take on additional responsibility as a data-relay satellite for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.
- MAVEN's mission was designed for two years, but the spacecraft has enough fuel to operate through 2030.
- MAVEN is the first mission dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere
Nov 18, 2013: Launch
Sep 21, 2014: Mars orbit insertion
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission was selected as part of NASA’s now-canceled Mars Scout Program to explore the atmosphere and ionosphere of the planet and how they interact with the Sun and solar wind.
The goal is to use this data to determine how the loss of volatiles from the Martian atmosphere has affected the Martian climate over time, and thus contribute to a better understanding of terrestrial climatology.
The Mars Scout Program involved low-cost spacecraft (less than $450 million) but was canceled in 2010 after approval of MAVEN and the Phoenix lander. Mars missions would now be selected competitively under the Discovery Program.
Because of a U.S. government shutdown in the fall of 2013, MAVEN nearly didn’t get off the ground. Fortunately, MAVEN was defined as part of “critical infrastructure,” allowing the launch to proceed on time Nov. 18, 2013.
The payload successfully reached a 104 × 196-mile (167 × 315-kilometer) parking orbit around Earth at a 26.7-degree inclination. Soon, the Centaur upper stage (with its RL-10A-4-2 engine), fired the spacecraft into a hyperbolic Earth orbit at 121 × 48,600 miles (195 × 78,200 kilometers) at a 27.7-degree inclination.
On Nov. 21, another burn inserted the spacecraft on a trans-Mars trajectory, with additional course corrections Dec. 3, 2013, and Feb. 27, 2014.
At 03:24 UT Sept. 21, 2014, MAVEN successfully entered orbit around Mars after a 10-month journey when its six main engines fired and burned for 33 minutes and 26 seconds to slow the craft.
The spacecraft entered a six-week commissioning phase before beginning science operations. The initial orbital period was 35.02 hours. The primary mission, in an orbit with a period of 4.5 hours, included five “deep-dip” campaigns, during which MAVEN’s periapsis was lowered from 93 miles (150 kilometers) to about 78 miles (125 kilometers) to collect data on the boundary between the upper and lower atmosphere.
By mid-October 2014 all of MAVEN's scientific instruments were turned on. Because of the close Martian flyby (about 86,700 miles or 139,500 kilometers) of Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) on Oct. 19, controllers took precautions to protect MAVEN from damage. MAVEN survived without any damage, and also returned valuable data on the comet’s effect on the Martian atmosphere.
MAVEN began its one-year primary science mission Nov. 16, 2014, carrying out regular observations of the Martian upper atmosphere, ionosphere and solar-wind interactions with its nine scientific instruments.
MAVEN completed the first of its five “deep-dip” maneuvers between Feb. 10 and Feb. 18, 2015. As with most of these dives, the first three days were used to lower the periapsis, with the remaining five days used for scientific investigations over roughly 20 orbits. Given that the planet rotates under the spacecraft, the 20 orbits allow the opportunity to explore different longitudes spaced around Mars, essentially giving it a global reach.
The following month, based on data collected in December 2014, mission scientists announced that they had detected two unanticipated phenomena in the Martian atmosphere, one involving a high-altitude dust cloud at about 93 to 190 miles (150 to 300 kilometers) in altitude. The other discovery was a bright ultraviolet auroral glow in the northern hemisphere.
Like all probes in orbit or on the surface of Mars, communications with MAVEN were put on hold during the Mars conjunction in June 2015.
MAVEN commemorated a year in orbit in September 2015 by which time it had carried out four deep-dive campaigns. By this time, NASA had approved an extended mission past November.
In a major reveal in November 2015, scientists published the results (in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters) of their analysis of data from MAVEN, which identified the processes that contributed to the transition of the Martian climate from an early, warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life to the cold and dry world at the present. More specifically, the information helped to determine the most accurate rate at which the Martian atmosphere was currently losing gas to space via “stripping” to the solar wind.
In late November and early December 2015, MAVEN made a series of close flybys of Phobos, Mars’ largest moon, coming within 310 miles (500 kilometers) of its surface, and collecting spectral images using the imaging ultraviolet spectrometer (IUVS).
On Oct. 3, 2016, MAVEN completed an entire Mars year of scientific observations. The following year, on Feb. 28, 2017, MAVEN carried out a small orbital maneuver, the first of its kind, to avoid a possible impact with Phobos.
During MAVEN’s second Martian year in orbit, through 2017, research was being coordinated with simultaneous atmospheric observations by ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter.
On Sept. 20, 2018, the MAVEN team celebrated four years in orbit by releasing a selfie of the spacecraft at Mars. The image was obtained using the IUVS instrument, which is mounted on a platform at the end of a 4-foot (1.2-meter) boom, the spacecraft’s own “selfie stick.” The boom was rotated to look back at the spacecraft and to snap several images that were stitched together.
In February 2019, MAVEN embarked on a new campaign to tighten its orbit around Mars to prepare it to take on additional responsibility as a data-relay satellite for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.
Though MAVEN was designed to last two years, the spacecraft is operating normally and has enough fuel to operate through 2030.
NASA plans to use MAVEN's relay capability as long as possible. The spacecraft has an ultra high frequency (UHF) radio transceiver—similar to transceivers carried on other Mars orbiters—that allows it to relay data between Earth and rovers or landers on the surface of Mars. MAVEN has already been used occasionally to communicate with NASA’s Curiosity rover.