Will MAVEN Unlock the Mysteries of Our Planetary System?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cape Canaveral, Fla. — Experiencing a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral is one of the most awe-inspiring events that one could have the good fortune to see, so when I was offered the opportunity to watch the launch of MAVEN, a Mars space probe, on Monday, I seized the opportunity and rejoiced at the thought of watching his- tory happen at first hand.

Forty-eight years after the first close-up photos of Mars were sent back to Earth from Mariner 4, there are still questions regarding the climate of the Red Planet.  While earlier missions to Mars revealed a thin atmosphere and an absence of water, more recent missions suggest Mars had surface water as recently as millions of years ago.

“In order to have liquid water, you need to have temperatures above freezing, and in order to keep temperatures above freezing, you need gases in the atmosphere that can keep the surface warm, many more gases than we have today,” explained Dave Brain, co-investigator on the MAVEN science team. This insight leads to two tantalizing questions: What happened to the water, and what happened to the atmosphere?

To answer these questions, scientists launched MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN)).

“Obviously, one place [the water] can go is down into the crust of the planet, but we’ve sent some Mars Landers there, and they’ve discovered that there’s not as much [subsurface water] as we would expect,” said Jeff Coyne, the Assembly Test and Launch operations manager of MAVEN. “Another place the atmosphere and water can go is out into space; it escapes from Mars.  So that’s what MAVEN is focusing on.”

Specifically, MAVEN will analyze how a multitude of factors currently affect the loss of atmosphere so scientists can then extrapolate backwards in time to understand how Mars’ climate has changed over the past 4.5 billion years.

MAVEN is doing more than just gathering scientific data about the climate of Mars, however. “Mars is a laboratory for planets everywhere,” said Dr. Brain. “This is not only a Mars mission, this is a planet mission …  a mission about the history and habitability of planets.”

Understanding the climates of the other planets in our solar system helps us understand our own climate and what kinds of consequences we should expect from climate change. Perhaps even more dramatically, what we learn from this mission will help us determine if Mars was at any time habitable for humans.

Bill Nye (The Science Guy!) who gave a lecture at Sunday’s briefings, summed up the scientific and inspirational nature of the MAVEN launch nicely. ”It’s going to take discoveries made on Mars to understand the climate here on Earth so that we can learn more about where we all came from and whether or not we’re alone.”

Nye rekindled a childhood sense of curiosity and wonder I thought I had lost years ago.

Shortly before launch, loudspeakers played a phone call from Colonel Mike Hopkins from the International Space Station, wishing the MAVEN mission good luck. Hearing his words, my mind shifted from thinking about the launch on the ground towards the boundaries of space.

As I listened to the crystal-clear voice of an astronaut transmitted from 220 miles above Earth, I imagined the future of a manned trip to Mars, and my heart started racing.

I expected to be antsy in anticipation at the countdown. I expected to cheer with hundreds of other visitors as we stared into the sky, watching the receding cylindrical projectile disappear. 

What I did not expect was the overwhelming emotion that flooded me as the clock counted down from T-3 minutes to T-0 and I started processing the historical implications of what had just occurred.

Three minutes before launch, I stood atop the bleachers, binoculars in hand, desperately checking and rechecking the launch pad site to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.  I kept glancing nervously at the clock, as if by not checking the clock, MAVEN would launch without my knowledge.

Then, right before the two-minute mark, the whole crowd suddenly quieted down.  Mission Command counted down in increments of tens of seconds; overhead on the speakers, we heard them run through the last of the tests on Atlas (the rocket) and Centaur (the stage that provides the thrust to propel MAVEN out of orbit). 

We anxiously awaited the 25-second mark, the last second when the launch could be put on hold (I’ve never heard 1 000 people in bleachers stand so quietly). Finally, “Twenty-five: Status check? Go Atlas, Go Centaur, Go MAVEN,” and the crowd erupted in a short cheer before returning to another nervous silence.

At T-10 seconds, the crowd launched into a second-by-second countdown with Mission Command, then cheered as MAVEN cleared the clouds and lurched upwards. I was physically shaking from disbelief, barely able to hold my binoculars still. 

Shortly thereafter, MAVEN disappeared into the clouds and the crowd quieted in disappointment.  Then the crowd erupted again as MAVEN burst through a layer of clouds to show itself off for a few more glorious seconds.  One full minute after lift-off, the sound of MAVEN launching reached our bleachers, rolling in across the river like a gentle rumble of thunder. 

With the reality of a successful launch behind us, my imagination took over, and I thought about one of the last points Bill Nye had made the day before. It was the reason why I was so emotionally overwhelmed at lift-off, for until he spoke the words, I hadn’t dared dream about the possibilities of our actions.

“If we were to discover evidence of life on Mars, or stranger still, something still alive on Mars, some sort of Martian microbe. ... It would change the way each and every one of us thinks about our place in space.  It would change the way each and every one of us thinks about our origins and where we came from. … It would change the world.”

An hour later, the guests on the tour bus all cheered one last time, as we received the news that MAVEN had successfully separated from the Atlas V rocket and Centaur stage and was headed alone to Mars. 

I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes, comforted by the notion that I wouldn’t yet have to change my concept of life in the great beyond, but inspired by the possibility that in 10 months, everything as we know it could change forever.