Tag Archives: Exploration

MAVEN launches to Mars

18 Nov

Watch the launch video:

MAVEN (which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) launched on schedule at 1:28pm EST (18:28 UTC) on Monday, November 18, 2013 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida atop an Atlas V rocket, supplied by United Launch Alliance. With the on-schedule launch at the beginning on the launch window, MAVEN’s 10-month journey to Mars will see it arrive in orbit of the red planet on September 22, 2014.

MAVEN launched atop an Atlas V rocket (courtesy NASA/United Launch Alliance)

MAVEN launched atop an Atlas V rocket (courtesy NASA/United Launch Alliance)

Once in orbit around Mars, MAVEN will help us to understand what happened on Mars that caused it to transform from a warm, wet world into the dry desert we know today. In other words, where did the atmosphere and water go, and how did it happen?

In order to achieve its goals, MAVEN has eight instruments bundled into three scientific suites. These instruments include: the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, Magnetometer, Solar Wind Electron Analyzer, SupraThermal And Thermal Ion Composition, Langmuir Probe and Waves antenna, Solar Energetic Particles, and the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer.

With its “gull wing” solar arrays fully extended, MAVEN’s wingspan comes in at 11.3 meters (37 feet). The dry mass is 903 kg (1,991 lbs), with an additional 1,645 kg (3,627 lbs) of fuel. The solar arrays provide a maximum power output of 1135 watts at Mars aphelion.

MAVEN's Instruments

MAVEN’s Instruments

The month of November is also a historically significant month for space exploration – and in particular the exploration of Mars. In November 1971, Mariner 9 successfully entered orbit around Mars and became the first human made object to orbit another world – just ahead of the twin Soviet probes Mars 2 and Mars 3. Read more about that here.

To learn more about MAVEN, check out the NASA mission page here, or watch this MAVEN mission overview:

MAVEN rolling to the launch pad

MAVEN rolling to the launch pad

MAVEN on the launch pad

MAVEN on the launch pad

Exploring Earth’s other worlds

17 Nov

The CAVES 2013 (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills) course took place, incidentally, in a cave system.

The course was designed by the European Space Agency as a training opportunity for astronauts to learn about the challenges of isolation, communication, exploration and discovery that would face them when in space aboard the International Space Station – or, quite literally, exploring other worlds.

Using Earth as a training ground for exploring space is nothing new: astronauts routinely train underwater to prepare for spacewalks and other missions; this past summer Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen went on a geology expedition in Canada’s high arctic to learn how to conduct field geology. He also served as mission commander on the CAVES 2013 course for several days.

The CAVES course equally provides an opportunity for the astronauts to learn how to become better explorers and for mission controllers to figure out how to conduct these remote operations in challenging environments with limited communication.

Missions like CAVES is precisely what will enable future voyages away from Earth to be successful, and it’s great that the Canadian Space Agency participates.

Caves 2013 Astronauts

Caves 2013 Astronauts

During their six-day stay underground in September for CAVES 2013, the astronauts were busy creating 3D cave maps of the areas around their base-camp, photographic surveys, and taking samples of rarely-seen cave organisms. This year’s mission objectives also included monitoring airflow, temperature and humidity and taking geological, biological and microbiological samples. All which are tasks that would be standard on future missions in space.

They also happen to teach us more about Earth, which is interestingly often the underwritten goal of space exploration. In order to learn more about what’s happening right here, we have to look outwards in order to build a dataset that includes examples from places other than Earth. After all, Earth is but one example of how things work. Maybe what’s happening here is typical; maybe it’s not. To find out, we have to build a basis of comparison.

It also strikes me how amazing, and numerous, “other worlds” exist right here on Earth. Whether thinking about the ocean floor, tops of mountains, or deep inside a cave – Earth has environments so numerous and unique that it could be compared to visiting another planet. In fact on the CAVES mission in 2012, the astronauts participating even found a new form of life!

Reaching Mars

14 Nov
Panoramic composite image of Mars taken by the MER-Opportunity

Panoramic composite image of Mars taken by the MER-Opportunity

November is a month where we (in the Northern hemisphere) have to start thinking about winter, clearing snow, and extra blankets. But in 1971, November was a month of reaching new worlds.

And November 14 in particular is a day like most others, except that on this day in 1971 the NASA spacecraft Mariner 9 (aka Mars ’71) became the first craft to orbit another planet when it entered orbit around Mars.

Reaching another world in such a way is an important mark in the history of space exploration.

Launch of Mariner 9

Launch of Mariner 9

Mariner 9 launched from Florida on May 30, 1971 on a direct ascent trajectory towards the red planet. It was intended to have a twin spacecraft journey along with it, but a launch problem prevented Mariner 8 from getting off the ground.

Incredibly when Mariner 9 was scheduled to begin mapping an enormous dust storm enveloped Mars, and so only the top of Olympus Mons was visible. That’s one heck of a storm – but even more incredibly, we were there to witness it.

Mariner 9 just barely reached Mars orbit ahead of the Soviet spacecraft Mars 2 (November 27, 1971) and Mars 3 (December 2, 1971). Though the Soviet spacecraft both had landers, and so on November 27, 1971 Mars 2 became the first human made object to reach the surface of Mars – though due to an error in entering the Martian atmosphere, Mars 2 crashed. A couple months later in early December, Mars 3 successfully soft-landed on the surface of Mars, but due to an unknown computer error the probe stopped transmitting data after just 14.5 seconds of surface time. The craft was never heard from again.

First image from the surface of Mars (with nothing discernible), captured by Mars 3

First image from the surface of Mars (with nothing discernible), captured by Mars 3

Mariner 9 though was quite successful. In total it returned 7,329 images of Mars during 11 months operating in orbit (it operated up until October 27, 1972). Mariner 9 remains in orbit of Mars to this day, though that orbit is slowly declining, and it is expected to enter the atmosphere of Mars sometime around 2022. Whether it will burn up or impact the surface is an open question.

Moving ahead from the first missions to Mars to the present, November 2013 is again a month for Mars. On November 5, 2013 India’s space agency launched its first probe towards Martian orbit. Their Mars Orbiter Mission (aka MOM) spacecraft launched flawlessly and is set to enter the influence of Mars’ gravity on September 24, 2014. MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere, and in particular look for evidence of methane being present.

Mariner 9 image of the Martian surface

Mariner 9 image of the Martian surface

NASA is also launching a probe to Mars when MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) blasts off. Its launch window opens on November 18. And I’ll be watching this mission closely as my name is on the orbiter: I filled out a form on the NASA website a while back, and now my name is digitally stored in the spacecraft’s memory. And so – at least symbolically – part of me will be on the journey as well. That’s a nice touch by NASA public affairs. MAVEN will study Mars’ upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. If it launches on schedule on November 18, it will reach Mars on September 22, 2014.

The fact that these launches happen in groups (either historically or presently) is not a coincidence. The relative orbits of Earth and Mars align in an Earth-Mars transit-friendly manner about once every two years.

I always get quite excited about missions to other worlds. We never know what secrets we will unlock, but they inevitably teach us as much about our blue marble as they do about anywhere else. After all, what transpired to form those clumps of rock, ice, and gas is very likely precisely what happened to form ours.

Mariner 9

Mariner 9

Happy Carl Sagan Day!

9 Nov

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 - December 20, 1996)

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996)

November 9 has been celebrated for a few years now as ‘Carl Sagan Day’, with the first occurring in 2009.

Carl had an amazing ability to translate the complexities of space, science, and astronomy into beautiful, inspiring poetry that connects each of us to one another.

He began as an astronomer, but his way with words allowed us to explore the universe along with him. I actually have a couple of his books on my nightstand right now, and even though they’re 30+ years old, they still read wonderfully – even if they are somewhat out of date. But incredibly, they aren’t that out of date, as Carl had an uncanny ability to see what was coming.

This video below sums all that up perfectly:

To read more about Carl and his day, head to the Center for Inquiry website. Carl Sagan also comes up in my posts somewhat regularly, here they are.

Happy Carl Sagan Day!