Monday, September 29, 2014

Last Week on Mars

An artist’s representation of MAVEN in orbit
Photo from
As summer has officially come to a close, on the forefront of everyone’s mind is the snowy winter ahead of us. What I’d like you to think about today, however, is not a change in weather, but rather a change in climate – and not here on Earth. If you have been paying attention to the news this weekend, you might already be aware that NASA’s latest Mars orbiter, MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), successfully reached its orbit just before 10:30 pm the evening of September 21, after 10 months of traveling through space. With global attempts at Mars missions beginning in 1960, the past 54 years have seen just under a 60% success rate. This includes fly-bys, orbiters, landers, rovers, and now, MAVEN. Why has so much time, effort, and money been put into learning about Mars when the success rate is so low? The simplest answer to this question is to determine whether Mars once did, can currently, or will ever support life - but it goes further than that.

Throughout all of the missions to Mars, many differences have been observed between our home planet and the red planet, yet many parallels can be drawn between the two. While the differences have been able to change the human perception of how planets work, the similarities have the potential to teach us more about our Earth. Does the past of Mars look anything like present day Earth? If so, how did Mars come to be what it is now? Could Earth be on a track towards the same fate? The MAVEN spacecraft is another installation in mankind’s search for knowledge about Mars. MAVEN’s primary goal is to help us understand the upper atmosphere and what controls it. During the mission, the spacecraft will dip low enough in its orbit to gather information where the lower and upper atmosphere meet - providing data from the whole upper atmosphere. Through an understanding of the upper atmosphere, we will be able to discern how it has changed and how those changes may have impacted the surface of Mars. In conjunction with the rovers on the surface of Mars (most notably Curiosity, which successfully landed in August of 2012), MAVEN will put us one step closer to being able to answer the questions listed above.

An Artist’s Representation of Mangalyaan
Photo from
            In other news - just 3 days after MAVEN reached its orbit, another triumph was made in space exploration – India’s first interplanetary mission (another orbiter named Mangalyaan) successfully reached its orbit around Mars. About 50 years ago, the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) was founded, marking the beginning of India’s space program. When looking at the history of missions to Mars, it is quite impressive that India’s first attempt at Mars exploration was a success – a feat that no other space program has been able to accomplish. What is even more impressive is how much the mission cost; according to an article posted on, the cost of Mangalyaan in US dollars is about $74 million. This is just about 11% of the cost of MAVEN, which rang in at around $672 million. Mangalyaan was primarily intended as a demonstration of the technology India has acquired as opposed to pursuing a specific research goal (like MAVEN). This accounts for the majority of the cost disparity between the two; however, the idea that a successful Mars mission could cost so little (when compared to previous missions) gives hope that a future of more cost effective space exploration is possible.

The MAVEN team at the launch site the day before launch
Photo from
The importance of the missions to Mars isn’t limited to the knowledge gained, but encompasses the achievements of mankind. These projects take upwards of 10 years to come to fruition, with countless people working on them. Successful missions aid in the progress of science while simultaneously displaying how far we have come as a species. To be able to launch a spacecraft one night, knowing that 10 months later it will be orbiting Mars is something that was inconceivable just under 400 years ago when Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens discovered the planet.

For More Information about MAVEN visit
For More Information about Mangalyaan visit
To learn more about the Mars missions visit
And to learn about the people involved in MAVEN visit

Keely Criddle
JMuse/Physics & Astronomy Blogger 2014-2015