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MAVEN spacecraft gears up to observe global dust storm on Mars

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft in orbit above the Red Planet. Image Credit NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

An artist’s rendering of MAVEN orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission (MAVEN) orbiter will have a front-row seat to watch a dusty spectacle in late 2016. The spacecraft, nearing its second anniversary in Martian orbit, has already gathered a wealth of scientific data about the Red Planet’s atmosphere and is expected to provide crucial insights on the nature of intense dust storms occurring periodically on Mars.

MAVEN’s goal is to explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the Sun and solar wind. It has observed Mars in different states, returning scientific data regarding various phenomena.

“We are continuing to observe Mars, and part of our goal is to observe the planet under a wide variety of different conditions and see what happens,” Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, told “We have seen cometary dust impact, solar storms, changing atmospheric conditions. One thing that we have not observed is the effects of a global dust storm. We are now entering ‘dust storm season’ on Mars, and waiting to see what Mars will throw at us!”

MAVEN atmospheric temperature data graphic

This graphic represents Martian atmospheric temperature data as curtains over an image of the Red Planet taken during a regional dust storm. The temperature profiles extend from the surface to about 50 miles up. Temperatures are color coded, from -243°F / -153°C (purple) to -9°F / -23°C (red). Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When solar heating warms the Martian atmosphere and causes the air to move, dust lifts off the ground, forming a dust storm. These storms could be very powerful when Mars reaches its perihelion as the sunlight striking the planet will be 20 percent more intense than the annual average. While planet-wide dust storms on Mars are difficult to be predicted exactly, scientists forecast call for severe dusty events in late October 2016 when the Red Planet will be at its closest point to the Sun.

Dust storms could help researchers better understand the processes taking place in the tenuous Martian atmosphere. This is MAVEN’s main task, in particular, investigating the loss of the planet’s atmosphere to space.

MAVEN’s data proved the Sun and solar wind are able to strip gas from the atmosphere and remove it to space. The spacecraft’s measurements allowed the scientists to conclude that over the history of the planet, this was likely the dominant mechanism for driving the changes in climate.

“We have been able to observe the energy inputs from the Sun and solar wind, the response of the upper atmospheric structure and composition, and the ability to drive loss of gas to space,” Jakosky said. “This represents a major advance in our understanding of the behavior of the upper atmosphere!”

Jakosky said it is becoming clear that any aspect of the history of Mars cannot be considered in isolation. The planet’s environment is an intricately coupled system of complex processes spanning from the deep interior to the upper atmosphere and its interactions with solar wind.

“MAVEN has begun to fill in the gap of the top of the atmosphere, and is showing how processes there can affect the planet’s climate, geology, and habitability!” Jakosky noted.

Currently, the MAVEN spacecraft and all of its science instruments are operating nominally and science observations are continuing. The orbiter has just been approved for a two-year extended mission that will carry it into late 2018.

“We have enough fuel that we can continue to operate for perhaps as long as another decade,” Jakosky said. “Of course, nothing is guaranteed, and we are trying to take each week as it comes to get the most out of it.”

MAVEN began its primary science mission Nov. 16, 2014, and is the first spacecraft dedicated to understanding Mars’ upper atmosphere. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the MAVEN project for the principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and for the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations.


Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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