Oct. 18--After nearly a decade of preparation, the countdown is now at one month for MAVEN, one of the most momentous space missions in which the University of Colorado has ever been involved.
The launch window raises Nov. 18 and extends through Dec. 7, although mission principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, of a professor at CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said it could depart for Mars as late as Dec. 15 without a significant impact on its activities.
CU boasts a long history in space, with 19 of 20 CU-affiliated astronauts having flown in space, and its scientists having placed dozens of payloads on NASA's 135 shuttle missions. But the $670 millionMAVEN -- Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution -- is stirring an added level of excitement in the university's science community and beyond.
"It's got to be in the top three or top five, something like that," said Bill Possel, LASP's science operations center manager for the MAVEN project, "the fact that CU is in charge of the entire mission."
Jakosky, a geological sciences professor, wrote in an email, "MAVEN will be able to tell us about the history of the climate and what caused the changes and it will not tell us whether life actually existed or still might exist on Mars today.
"MAVEN is about understanding the history of the habitability of Mars by microbes. But we will not determine whether it actually is inhabited by microbes."
He said its significance to the university's space legacy stems from "the fact that we could credibly propose a mission like this, provide two science instruments, do the science operations, all take advantage of this long history and the experience that comes with it," he wrote in an email. "MAVEN is certainly the largest program we've ever led, and the most visible."
Scuttled by politics -- but only briefly
MAVEN was temporarily but seriously jeopardized by the federal government shutdown, which began Oct. 1.
The project was shut down -- all operations put into what scientists call a "safe state" -- but not for long. Jakosky learned Oct. 3 that NASA had given MAVEN an emergency exemption, ruling that other functions it can also perform, such as serving as a data relay station for other Mars-based NASA exploration, made it an essential operation.
"There was a lot of nervousness for us," said Guy Beutelschies, program manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which manufactured the spacecraft at its plant in Littleton, and who is now also in Florida preparing for the launch. "This alignment of Earth and Mars, we would have had to wait over two years before they're in position again."