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Probe examines how Mars lost water supply

Posted: 15 Sep 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MAVEN? Martian? Curiosity?

Scientists know that some H2O was lost to chemical reactions, while some was frozen at the Martian poles or is trapped below the planet's surface. MAVEN's instruments will try over the next year to determine how water and the Martian atmosphere were literally "lost in space."

Other instruments like an ultraviolet spectrometer will help determine the current composition of the thin Martian atmosphere. "We'll also see measurements over time [and] at well-sampled longitudes and latitudes" over a period of one Earth year, Morrissey noted.

This will allow scientists to analyse data about the Martian atmosphere by "playing it forward and backward," Morrissey said, in order to figure out what is happening in the upper atmosphere. These unprecedented data analysis tools should help scientists come up with data-driven insights about the evolution of planetary atmospheres.

The timing of the MAVEN mission is fortuitous. The World Meteorological Organization reported on Sept. 9 that heat-trapping CO2 levels in the Earth's atmosphere reached record levels in 2013. Another NASA probe, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, is currently monitoring the Earth's atmospheric CO2 levels and will eventually map carbon sources and carbon sinks on Earth.

Those observations, along with MAVEN's extensive measurements of the upper Martian atmospherean environment that may have looked similar to Earth's despite the fact that Mars lacks a magnetic fieldcould help climate scientists better understand the evolution of the thin layer of atmosphere that protects us from the ravages of outer space.

The atmospheric data swept up by MAVEN's sensor payload will be relayed back to Earth via a high-gain antenna. Morrissey added that a separate UHF antenna on the spacecraft will serve as a communications relay link between ground controllers and the Mars Curiosity rover currently making its way to Mount Sharp, the central peak of Gale Crater. The backup relay antenna was built by engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Learn more about the instruments by watching the hour-long prelaunch "hangout" with four of the mission's instrument scientists:

- George Leopold
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