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NASA plans $485 million robotic mission to Mars in 2013

New orbiter designed to study Red Planet's atmosphere and climate history

September 16, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - With gobs of information from its recent Mars missions already in the hopper, NASA is now making plans for the 2013 launch of its next robotic trip to the Red Planet. The $485 million mission will focus on studying the planet's atmosphere, climate history and potential habitability.

In recent months, NASA's Mars Lander has been gathering new information on the content of Martian soil and on an ice layer near the Martian north pole. The study of Mars also includes two robotic Rovers that have been traversing the planet for four and a half years, studying rocks and the history of the planet's weather.

And an orbiter is now circling Mars as well. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which acts as a communications relay for other Mars spacecraft, carries a telescopic camera and is helping scientists find landing sites for future missions.

The next planned orbiter is dubbed the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft. NASA announced today that the plan for this mission was chosen out of 20 proposals that were submitted to the space agency.

"This [next] mission will provide the first direct measurements ever taken to address key scientific questions about Mars' evolution," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters in Washington, in a statement. "The loss of Mars' atmosphere has been an ongoing mystery. MAVEN will help us solve it."

According to NASA, Mars once had a much denser atmosphere that supported the presence of water on the surface of the planet. It's suspected that streams and even lakes dotted the landscape billions of years ago. The atmosphere largely dissipated  as, apparently, did the water.

MAVEN will be designed to make scientific measurements of present-day atmospheric loss that will offer clues about the planet's history.

Bruce Jakosky, a researcher at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, will be the principal investigator for this upcoming mission. According to NASA, his university will receive $6 million to fund mission planning and technology development during the coming year. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will manage the project, while a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp. in Littleton, Colo., will build the spacecraft based on designs from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and 2001 Mars Odyssey missions.

The team will begin mission design and implementation in the fall of 2009.

NASA noted that the MAVEN orbiter should arrive at Mars in the fall of 2014, going into an elliptical orbit ranging from 90 to 3,870 miles above the planet. The spacecraft's eight scientific instruments will take measurements during a full Earth year, which is roughly equivalent to half of a Martian year. MAVEN also is scheduled to dip down to 80 miles above the planet to sample Mars' upper atmosphere.

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