Just after arrival, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), the first spacecraft sent to explore the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars, has started working on it's mission. Within 24 hours of being placed in the Red Planet's orbit, the spacecraft has obtained its first observations of the extended upper atmosphere surrounding Mars and sent it to Earth.
MAVEN doesn't have a camera. It's imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument can detect emission from molecules and ions that are common components of Mars air, mapping the distribution and availability of gases like carbon dioxide, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and the ions obtained thereby ionizing them.
Unlike a camera, its data aren't that useful in snapshot form; the IUVS team will be taking data throughout the mission and using it to generate 3D models that describe how different materials exist and move throughout the atmosphere.
But there's one particular type of data that IUVS will be generating on a regular basis that's amenable to representation in 2D - that is, picture - form.
Image credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado; NASA
The Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument obtained these false-color images eight hours after the successful completion of Mars orbit insertion by the spacecraft at 02:24 UTC on Monday, September 22, after a 10-month journey. MAVEN was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket in November of 2013.
The image shows the planet from an altitude of 36 500 km in three ultraviolet wavelength bands.
Blue shows the ultraviolet light from the sun scattered from atomic hydrogen gas in an extended cloud that goes to thousands of kilometers above the planet’s surface.
Green shows a different wavelength of ultraviolet light that is primarily sunlight reflected off of atomic oxygen, showing the smaller oxygen cloud.
Red shows ultraviolet sunlight reflected from the planet’s surface; the bright spot in the lower right is light reflected either from polar ice or clouds.
Mars holds oxygen gas close by with it's gravity while lighter hydrogen gas stays at higher altitudes and extends past the edges of the image.
These gases derive from the breakdown of water and carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere. Over the course of its one-Earth-year primary science mission, MAVEN observations like these will be used to determine The data will be used to analyze how and at what rate Mars lost its atmospheric hydrogen and oxygen.
Observations like these are vital to our understanding of the processes by which Mars lost its water. The planet's air was relatively thick in the ancient past but is now just 1 percent as dense as that of Earth.
MAVEN's observations, should shed light on how and why Mars changed from a warm and wet world billions of years ago into the cold, dry planet we see today, is what researchers expect.
The probe is now in a commissioning phase, during which MAVEN will be lowered to it's final orbit.. The probe's one-year science mission is scheduled to start in early November.
Source: NASA / SSERVI
Featured image credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado; NASA