NASA and Lockheed Martin finish MAVEN probe, hope to study Mars' upper skies

Us humans are surprisingly familiar with Mars' surface, yet we haven't studied its higher altitudes -- an odd discrepancy when the sky plays as much of a role as the soil in determining the planet's climate. We'll get a better balance in our research now that NASA and Lockheed Martin have finished constructing the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution probe, or MAVEN. The robot craft will learn how quickly the Martian atmosphere is escaping into space and give us a better idea of how the planet's arid landscape came to be. Lockheed Martin still needs to conduct space simulation tests and ship MAVEN to the Kennedy Space Center, but the ship should launch in November and deliver results roughly a year later; that's a quick turnaround for a probe that could answer riddles spanning millions of years.

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NASA's MAVEN Mission Completes Assembly, Begins Environmental Testing

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft is assembled and is undergoing environmental testing at Lockheed Martin Space Systems facilities, near Denver, Colo. MAVEN is the next mission to Mars and will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere.

During the environmental testing phase, the orbiter will undergo a variety of rigorous tests that simulate the extreme temperatures, vacuum and vibration the spacecraft will experience during the course of its mission. Currently, the spacecraft is in the company's Reverberant Acoustic Laboratory being prepared to undergo acoustics testing that simulates the maximum sound and vibration levels the spacecraft will experience during launch.

Following the acoustics test, MAVEN will be subjected to a barrage of additional tests, including: separation/deployment shock, vibration, electromagnetic interference/electromagnetic compatibility and magnetics testing. The phase concludes with a thermal vacuum test where the spacecraft and its instruments are exposed to the vacuum and extreme hot and cold temperatures it will face in space.

"The assembly and integration of MAVEN has gone very smoothly and we're excited to test our work over the next six months," said Guy Beutelschies, MAVEN program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. "Environmental testing is a crucial set of activities designed to ensure the spacecraft can operate in the extreme conditions of space."

"I'm very pleased with how our team has designed and built the spacecraft and science instruments that will make our measurements," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. "We've got an exciting science mission planned, and the environmental testing now is what will ensure that we are ready for launch and for the mission."

MAVEN is scheduled to ship from Lockheed Martin's facility to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in early August, where it will undergo final preparations for launch.

MAVEN, scheduled to launch in November 2013, is a robotic exploration mission to understand the role that loss of atmospheric gas to space played in changing the Martian climate through time. It will investigate how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the current rate of escape to space and gathering enough information about the relevant processes to extrapolate backward in time.

"This phase of the program is particularly important in that it will provide us with a good assessment of the MAVEN system's capabilities under the simulated extremes of the space environment," said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Of significance, the spacecraft is entering system level test right on schedule, while maintaining robust cost and schedule reserves to deal with the technical or programmatic surprises that could occur during test or in the run to launch. Tracking on plan is critically important to being ready for launch later this year and the science that MAVEN will deliver one year later."

MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The university will provide science operations, science instruments and lead Education/Public Outreach. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the project and provides two of the science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo., built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The University of California at Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory provides science instruments for the mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., provides navigation support, the Deep Space Network and the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

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