Mars Orbiter Moves Closer to Red Planet

The MAVEN spacecraft is tightening its orbit in anticipation of the next NASA Mars mission.

NASA is one step closer to its planned mission to Mars. Today the American space agency released news that the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission is tightening its orbit around the red planet. The mission will reduce the highest point of MAVEN’s orbit from 6,200 to 4,500 kilometers above the surface of Mars. 

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The mission marks the beginning of MAVEN’s additional task of acting as a data-relay satellite for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover which will launch next year. 

“The MAVEN spacecraft has done a phenomenal job teaching us how Mars lost its atmosphere and providing other important scientific insights on the evolution of the Martian climate,” said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. 

“Now we’re recruiting it to help NASA communicate with our forthcoming Mars rover and its successors.” 

Mars Orbiter Moves Closer to Red Planet
Source: NASA

Ready to link rover to Earth

While in the scheme of space, MAVEN’s orbit hasn’t changed that dramatically it’s new position will significantly assist with future communication. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder compared the change to moving closer to a mobile cell tower for better reception. 

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As well as being closed for a better signal, the tighter orbit means MAVEN will complete loops around Mars more often, and thus have more chances to communicate with the high-tech rover. 

Despite the new task MAVEN will continue with its original mission of studying the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere of Mars. “We’re planning a vigorous science mission far into the future,” Jakosky said.

NASA slowly guides MAVEN into position

MAVEN was originally intended to only last two years in space, but four years after its launch the spacecraft is still operating normally. NASA is now monitoring its fuel supplies so that MAVEN’s relay capabilities can be used for as long as possible. 

MAVEN is carrying an ultra-high-frequency radio transceiver that will allow it to relay data between the future Mars rover and Earth. It has already got a bit of practice acting as a communication liaison with the Mars Curiosity Rover.

MAVEN will change its orbit using the technique known as aerobraking. It will use the drag of Mars’ upper atmosphere to slow itself down slowly. In theory, this is similar to putting your hand out of a car window and feeling the intense drag. 

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The whole process will take more than two months before MAVEN is in its new position. But the MAVEN team at NASA say this slow and steady approach is the most fuel efficient. 

Mars Orbiter Moves Closer to Red Planet
Source: NASA

The Mars 2020 rover will have the job of looking for signs that indicate Mars might have once been habitable. It will also be searching for signs of past microbial life.

Mars 2020 rover will also be equipped with sample collecting equipment. While there aren’t plan for Mars 2020 to return, the next mission might collect the samples and bring them to Earth.

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