CU-Boulder’s Remote Sensing Instrument Package Delivered for Mars Spacecraft Integration

A $20 million remote sensing instrument package built by the University of Colorado Boulder, which is leading a 2013 NASA mission to understand how Mars might have lost its atmosphere, has been delivered to Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colo., for spacecraft integration.

A $670 million NASA mission to Mars led by the University of Colorado Boulder is on track for a November 2013 launch. Illustration courtesy NASA

The remote sensing package designed and built by CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics consists of the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph, or IUVS, as well as its electronic control box, the Remote Sensing Data Processing Unit, or RSDPU, both under contract to NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Known as the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN, the $670 million NASA mission set for launch in November 2013 is being led by CU-Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky. The mission is designed to explore and understand how the loss of atmospheric gas has changed the climate of Mars over the eons, said Jakosky, also associate director of LASP.

"With the delivery of this package, we are shifting from assembling the basic spacecraft to focusing on getting the science instruments onto the spacecraft," said Jakosky, also a professor in the geological sciences department. "This is a major step toward getting us to launch and then getting the science return from the mission."

According to David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager from NASA Goddard, "The remote sensing package team built a system that meets all technical requirements and delivered it on schedule and on budget. I look forward to the instrument's next level of integration onto the spacecraft and ultimately the science it will provide."

The IUVS collects UV light and spreads it out on a spectra that is recorded using imaging detectors, said Mitchell. As the "brains" of the instrument package, RSDPU receives and executes commands telling the IUVS when and where to point.

"As the 'eyes' of the remote sensing package, the IUVS allows us to study Mars and its atmosphere at a distance by looking at the light it emits," said Nick Schneider, a LASP research associate and lead IUVS scientist for MAVEN. "Ultraviolet light is especially diagnostic of the state of the atmosphere, so our instrument provides the global context of the whole atmosphere for the local measurements made by the rest of the payload," said Schneider, also a faculty member in the APS department.

The CU-Boulder remote sensing package will be turned on for its initial checkout 21 days after launch, said NASA officials. Later, in the "cruise phase" of the mission from Earth to Mars, the package will be powered on twice more for "state-of-health checks" and in-flight calibration.

MAVEN will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian atmosphere, with a goal of determining the history of the loss of atmospheric gases to space through time, providing answers about Mars climate evolution. By measuring the current rate of gas escaping to space and gathering enough information about the relevant processes, scientists should be able to infer how the planet's atmosphere evolved over time.

The MAVEN spacecraft will carry two other instrument suites. The Particles and Fields Package, built by the University of California Berkeley Space Science Laboratory with support from LASP and NASA Goddard, contains six instruments that will characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, provided by NASA Goddard, will measure the composition and isotopes of neutral ions.

"Three of the big milestones in an instrument builder's life are the day you get selected to fly on a mission, the day you deliver the instrument to the spacecraft to get ready for launch, and the day that it gets where it's going and data starts flowing back from space," said Mark Lankton, the remote sensing package program manager at LASP. "The remote sensing team is really happy to have gotten to the second milestone, and we can hardly wait to reach the third."

CU-Boulder also will provide science operations and lead the education and public outreach efforts. NASA Goddard manages the project and is building two of the science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin is building the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., provides navigation support, the Deep Space Network, the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

"Our CU-Boulder IUVS instrument will be the most capable ultraviolet spectrometer ever sent to another planet," said LASP instrument scientist William McClintock. "Data from the IUVS will help planetary scientists rewrite the textbooks about the upper atmosphere of Mars, and we are fortunate to have a top-flight engineering team here at LASP that allowed us to design and develop such a sophisticated instrument."

Clues on the Martian surface, including features resembling dry lakes and riverbeds as well as minerals that form only in the presence of water, suggest that Mars once had a denser atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface, Jakosky said. CU-Boulder's participation in Mars exploration missions goes back to 1969 when NASA's Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 missions launched.

MAVEN is slated to slide into orbit around Mars in September 2014, and, after a one-month checkout period, will make measurements from orbit for one Earth year. The MAVEN science team includes three LASP scientists from CU-Boulder heading instrument teams -- Schneider, Frank Eparvier and Robert Ergun -- as well as a large supporting team of scientists, engineers and mission operations specialists.

MAVEN also will include participation by a number of CU-Boulder graduate and undergraduate students in the coming years. Currently there are more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students working on research projects at LASP, which provides hands-on training for future careers as engineers and scientists, said Jakosky.


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