CU Boulder Opens Doors with MAVEN Success

By Roxann Elliott

“I cannot help but be nervous,” admitted Mark Lankton, remote sensing manager for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission just before the live broadcast of MAVEN’s insertion into Mars orbit. “I’m very confident in the team and all the preparations, but history says it doesn’t always work. I’ll feel much better about 9:00 tonight.”

Lankton and the team at CU’s Laboratory for Atmosphere and Space Physics (LASP) proceeded to end the evening with raucous cheers and applause. After a 10-month, 442-million-mile journey to Mars, MAVEN successfully slowed into a stable orbit above the red planet.

But the work isn’t over. The satellite’s primary objective, to analyze the Martian atmosphere, will commence in mid-November.

The MAVEN mission is a collaborative effort between CU Boulder, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, UC Berkeley, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin. LASP’s Bruce Jakosky is the principle investigator on the project, which seeks to understand how Mars lost its atmosphere.

As satisfying as the successful orbital insertion is, work is just beginning for LASP and all the partner organizations involved. “We need about six weeks to make sure the instruments are working properly,” explained MAVEN co-investigator David Brain. “We have some – basically lens caps – we have to pop off in a couple places.”

“The IUVS instrument, which was built here at LASP, will probably be awakened in the middle of the night tonight and start sending back data by morning,” Brain said.

Now that Mars has captured MAVEN in its orbit, the satellite’s path will be adjusted from the initial 35-hour circuit to its intended 4.5-hour orbit. For the purpose of gathering data at various distances, MAVEN’s elliptical orbit will range from 90 miles above the surface of Mars to 3,900 miles. All this before the primary research mission even begins.

This is fantastic news for CU students, present and prospective. Brain estimates some 40 CU students, from undergraduate to doctoral, have already had a chance to work on the MAVEN mission. That’s not including those involved in the design and building of the craft.

“There’s a very active student participation program in the mission operations, the science operations center, here, has been for years,” Lankton confirmed, “MAVEN is a very obvious current example of this, and so students will actually be doing hands-on operations work with professional supervision.”

MAVEN has also brought a lot of attention to CU Boulder and the Colorado research community. “I think for planetary space missions, CU was already on the map,” said Brain, “and this just puts us right at the top.”

“Anything like this can only help,” said Nathaniel Putzig, a senior research scientist in the Department of Space Studies at Southwest Research Institute. “It has brought a lot of attention to the area.” Between CU, the Southwest Research Institute, and Lockheed Martin, Colorado is already home base for a variety of space research, and MAVEN is further evidence of what the local scientific community is capable.

“We have sent missions to every planet,” Lankton said of CU. “[MAVEN’s] the largest in scope and the largest dollar-wise.”

Beyond the scientific community, MAVEN has nurtured the interest of people throughout Colorado. Last night’s live broadcast at LASP was a standing-room-only affair.

“Within my science community, CU is extremely well known for space mission research,” Brain said after the presentation. “It’s really kind of touching because I’ve been working on it for so many years; a bunch of people came to make sure it got to Mars safely.”

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