MAVEN returns to full operation

NASA announced yesterday that engineers have finally completely restored its Mars orbiter MAVEN, after a three month period when the spacecraft was in safe mode due to an attitude control problem.

To fix the problem engineers uploaded new software that allowed the spacecraft to determine its orientation in space not from its onboard inertial units, but from locking onto stars in the sky.

All instruments were healthy and successfully resumed observations; however, the spacecraft was constrained to pointing at the Earth until testing of all-stellar mode was completed, so the instruments were not oriented as they normally would be during science operations. Nevertheless, some limited science was still possible, and MAVEN even observed a coronal mass ejection impact Mars less than two days after the instruments were powered on.

Moreover, for some parts of the year it will still need its inertial units, so a fix for those time periods is still required.

Regardless, MAVEN can now resume acting as a communications relay between the Earth and the rovers on Mars, which for the past year has become its prime mission. While both rovers can communication without that relay, it is often necessary depending on a number of factors, and it also provides redundancy and a greater communications capacity.

MAVEN out of operation since February

The American Mars orbiter MAVEN has been unable to do any science observations since February 22, 2022 because its attitude control system has not been functioning properly, according to a NASA update only released on May 18th, almost two months later.

In the weeks that followed, NASA managed to revive MAVEN from safe mode, but in a limited capacity. The orbiter is in a stable orbit with its primary antenna pointed at Earth to maintain high-rate communications with its flight control team. “In this configuration, however, MAVEN cannot perform communications relays for other spacecraft on Mars and is performing only limited science observations,” NASA officials wrote in the update (opens in new tab). “The mission team began science instrument recovery on April 20.” The orbiter normally serves as a communication relay for NASA’s Curiosity rover and Perseverance rover on Mars to beam the latest images and research from the Martian surface to Earth.

Though it can still do its own observations, MAVEN’s main task at this time is to act as a communications relay for the rovers on Mars. This issue prevents that task.

MAVEN and Al-Amal scientists sign agreement to collaborate

Scientists running the Mars orbiters MAVEN (from NASA) and Al-Amal (from the United Arab Emirates [UAE]) have signed an agreement to share data and — more importantly — coordinate their observations of the Martian atmosphere.

A new partnership that encourages the sharing of data between NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) project and the Emirates Mars Mission’s (EMM) Hope Probe (Al-Amal in Arabic) will enhance scientific returns from both spacecraft, which are currently orbiting Mars and collecting data on the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The arrangement is expected to add value to both MAVEN and EMM, as well as the scientific communities involved in analyzing the data the missions collect.

MAVEN went into orbit around Mars in 2014. Its mission is to investigate the upper atmosphere and ionosphere of Mars, offering an insight into how the planet’s climate has changed over time. “MAVEN and EMM are each exploring different aspects of the Martian atmosphere and upper-atmosphere system,” said Shannon Curry, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of California, Berkeley. “Combined, we will have a much better understanding of the coupling between the two, and the influence of the lower atmosphere on the escape to space of gas from the upper atmosphere.”

The EMM Hope Probe, which went into Mars orbit in 2021, is studying the relationship between the upper layer and lower regions of the Martian atmosphere, giving insight into the planet’s atmosphere at different times of the day and seasons.

What this agreement means is that the two science teams can more quickly match up the data from both orbiters, and figure out the relationships between both.

MAVEN finds water loss on Mars faster than expected

New data from the Mars orbiter MAVEN has found that the water on Mars moves into the upper atmosphere where it is lost to space much faster than expected.

It had previously been believed that Mars’ water loss only occurred in the lower atmosphere, which is a much slower process. Scientists had also believed that water on Mars would behave as it does on Earth, where temperatures and the atmosphere act to block it from reaching the upper atmosphere where it can easily and quickly be lost to space. Instead, MAVEN found a lot of water in the upper atmosphere.

When the team extrapolated their findings back 1 billion years, they found that this process can account for the loss of a global ocean about 17 inches deep. “If we took water and spread it evenly over the entire surface of Mars, that ocean of water lost to space due to the new process we describe would be over 17 inches deep,” Stone said. “An additional 6.7 inches would be lost due solely to the effects of global dust storms.”

During global dust storms, 20 times more water can be transported to the upper atmosphere. For example, one global dust storm lasting 45 days releases the same amount of water to space as Mars would lose during a calm Martian year, or 687 Earth days.

This data reinforces the theories that Mars once had liquid water on its surface, either as intermittent oceans or as lakes and rivers. Or it suggests that Mars once had a lot more glaciers than it does now, reinforcing a competing theory that glaciers formed the Martian features we on Earth routinely associate with flowing water.

India’s Mars orbiter confirms global dust storms speeds atmosphere loss

India’s Mars orbiter Mission (MOM) has confirmed that the periodic Martian global dust storms act to accelerate the loss of the red planet’s atmosphere.

The U.S. orbiter MAVEN found the same thing during the 2018 global dust storm. Moreover, the two orbiters focused on observing different hemispheres (MOM in the morning and MAVEN in the evening), and bot got comparable results.

Curiosity and other Mars orbiters threatened by budget cuts

The proposed budget for NASA in the Trump administrations 2021 budget request to Congress includes significant budget cuts to both Curiosity and several Mars orbiters needed to act as relay communications satellites.

The White House’s 2021 federal budget request allocates just $40 million to the mission, a decrease of 20% from the rover’s current funding. And that current funding is 13% less than Curiosity got in the previous year, said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

If the 2021 request is passed by Congress as-is, Curiosity’s operations would have to be scaled back considerably. Running the mission with just $40 million in 2021 would leave unused about 40% of the science team’s capability and 40% of the rover’s power output, which comes from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), Vasavada said.

In addition, the proposed budget will require a 50% reduction in imaging by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the end to the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and a significant but unspecified reduction in the use of the MAVEN orbiter.

I reported these facts back in March but there is no harm in noting them again.

The question is not whether there should be cuts at NASA. Considering the overall federal debt and annual budget deficit, NASA’s budget should be cut. The question is what to cut. The planetary program, probably NASA’s most successful program, is certainly not the program to cut. Instead, the Trump administration should be cutting the waste and badly run programs, like SLS, that spend billions and accomplish nothing.

If Congress and Trump did this, they could cut NASA’s total budget and still have plenty left over for the commercial manned program — including going to the Moon — and also increase the budget to the planetary program. I’ve been saying this since 2011, and nothing has happened in the past decade to change that conclusion.

Maven makes first map of Mars’ high altitude winds

High altitude wind patterns on Mars

Scientists using the Martian orbiter Maven have produced the first global map of the high altitude wind circulation of Mars.

The measurements of winds that were recently mapped above Mars were found at an altitude range of about 140-240 kilometers (85-150 miles) above the planet’s surface.

The wind data has been gathered by the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS). NGIMS’ original purpose was to determine the structure and composition of the Martian atmosphere by measuring in it the amounts of ions (electrically charged particles) and gases. However, although it was not originally designed to do so, in April 2016, the MAVEN team began using NGIMS to observe horizontal winds. Pausing normal collection of data, scientists on Earth programmed the instrument to nod back and forth so that it could detect the direction of winds along its track.

By combining data from many tracks as MAVEN orbits Mars, scientists slowly built up a map of wind behavior. This led to a startling discovery: the wind patterns actually correlated with the Martian topography below.

They have found that even at this high altitude the winds shift around the high volcanoes of the Tharsis Bulge.

To my eye, the wind pattern seen in the image, taken from the video at the link, is remarkably similar to the global wind patterns found on Venus, forming a widening V-pattern moving from east to west. Though the two are vastly different, the similarity is quite intriguing.

Mars in ultraviolet

Data from the Mars orbiter MAVEN have given scientists their first detailed look at the red planet in ultraviolet wavelengths.

New global images of Mars from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission being led by CU Boulder show the ultraviolet glow from the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail, revealing dynamic, previously invisible behavior.

They include the first images of “nightglow” that can be used to show how winds circulate at high altitudes. Additionally, dayside ultraviolet imagery from the spacecraft shows how ozone amounts change over the seasons and how afternoon clouds form over giant Martian volcanoes. The images were taken by the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) on MAVEN.

The build-up of clouds over Mars’ four big volcanoes is especially interesting, since it is thought this water vapor likely comes from underground ice left over from glaciers that were once on the mountains’ slopes. A very short video of that build up can be seen, below the fold.
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MAVEN in safe mode

A timing conflict between two computers on board MAVEN has put the Mars probe into safe mode.

The issue seems relatively minor and something that engineers should resolve without difficulty. Even so, I refuse to use the bureaucratic term “glitch” to describe it, as the article does, as this term is often employed by government employees to disguise much more serious problems. Journalists shouldn’t help them do this.

First results back from the U.S. MAVEN Mars probe

Scientists have released the first results from NASA’s MAVEN probe orbiting Mars, designed to study that planet’s upper atmosphere.

As expected, the spacecraft has quickly found evidence of the Martian atmosphere leaking away into space.

Hydrogen appears to be leaving the planet’s atmosphere in clumps and streams that reach about 10 Mars radii into space, said Mike Chaffin, a MAVEN scientist also at the University of Colorado, who discussed the results at a 14 October news briefing. The hydrogen comes from water vapour that breaks apart in the upper atmosphere; because hydrogen is so much lighter than oxygen, it escapes into space relatively easily. “That’s effectively removing water from the Martian atmosphere,” says Chaffin.

Other images show oxygen and carbon drifting away from the planet, although these heavier atoms cluster closer to Mars than hydrogen. Deep within the atmosphere, oxygen forms ozone molecules that accumulate near Mars’s south pole.

MAVEN enters Mars orbit

Upon completion of its engine burn this evening at 10:10 pm (eastern), MAVEN successfully entered Mars orbit.

Stephen Clark’s status updates on Spaceflight Now were accurate, informative, and right on the money. The live telecast on NASA-TV was confusing, idiotic, distracting, and uninformed. They never once announced when the engine burn had started, ignored the reactions of the people in the control room when they cheered some important event, and spent a lot of time discussing facts that were irrelevant to this event, which is “Will MAVEN achieve orbit!?” Worst of all, the male “anchor” was clearly ignorant of the mission while the female “anchor” spoke in a sing-song manner as if her audience were kindergarten toddlers who needed careful herding. All in all, it was embarrassing to watch.

They did manage to shut up just in time to catch the announcement from mission control that telemetry had confirmed that MAVEN had reached orbit. They then went back to chattering about irrelevant stuff. As I said, embarrassing.

The next week in space

For the next week there are going to be a number of important events that will determine the success or failure of a number of important space missions. I thought I’d lay out the schedule in a quick post, just to make it clear.

  • Falcon 9 launch: SpaceX is hoping to launch its Dragon capsule to ISS tonight at 2:14 am (eastern). If they are successful, it will be the fourth Falcon 9 launch since July 14. That is a very fast-paced launch schedule, as good as any other launch company’s, and more evidence that SpaceX is an effective competitor in the resurgent launch market.
  • Mavin orbital insertion: NASA hopes to place this Mars mission into orbit on Sunday at around 9:50 pm (eastern).
  • India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan: There are two important events this week for this mission. First, on Monday, September 22, engineers will do a test firing of the spacecraft’s engine, which has been inactive for the last several months during its cruise to Mars. If that firing is successful, they will do the orbital insertion burn on Wednesday, September 24.

So, stay tuned this week for some fun stuff. And as I’ve been saying, this is only the beginning.

NASA has decided to exempt its Mars probe, MAVEN, from the government shutdown, allowing preparations to resume for its November launch.

NASA has decided to exempt its Mars probe, MAVEN, from the government shutdown, allowing preparations to resume for its November launch.

NASA Headquarters in Washington determined that Maven’s preparations should go ahead on an emergency basis — not because of its scientific objectives, but because of its expected role as a communications relay satellite for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on Mars. “Both Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey have been acting as communication relays, but they’ve passed their design lifetime,” Jakosky explained. “Maven carries communication equipment to take over that job as necessary. Getting us launched at this opportunity is a way to preserve that ability to communicate.”

As I’ve said before, as much as I am in favor of launching this kind of science mission, the number of arbitrary decisions relating to this shutdown makes the whole thing look ridiculous. NASA can act to protect its investments on Mars, but the National Park Service is required to interfere with the normal actions of private restaurants here on Earth?

The truth is that these science missions really don’t fall under the intended definition of “essential operations”. The federal bureaucracy, under the direction of the White House, is simply stretching that definition for their own convenience, wherever they like.

With a launch window from November 18 to December7, the government shutdown might delay NASA’s next Mars unmanned probe MAVEN until 2016.

Chicken Little report: With a launch window from November 18 to December7, the government shutdown might delay NASA’s next Mars unmanned probe MAVEN until 2016.

It is absolutely possible that the shutdown could cause MAVEN to miss its launch window. Such is life. The world won’t end, and as much as I am a big supporter of space exploration, I also recognize that there are actually bigger issues than NASA hanging in the balance.

Note that the article above bleeds tears for the poor government officials who might not get paid during the shutdown. Well, the economy has sucked for the past five years, with no signs of improvement and plenty of evidence that Obama and Congress have done a great deal to make things worse, especially with the passage of Obamacare. Maybe we should instead have some sympathy for the people who earn the money to pay for NASA and the government and have been screaming at these politicians to just leave them alone.