UC Berkeley to Take Part in $485 Million Mars Mission

Photo: Mars as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope.
MAVEN Concept Studies Report/Courtesy
Mars as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope.

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Robert Lin on the Mars Mission

Robert Lin, UC Berkeley professor of astrophysics and deputy principal investigator for the Mars mission explains various aspects of the project.

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UC Berkeley will be a major research partner in a space mission to Mars, led by the University of Colorado at Boulder, NASA announced Monday.

The mission, called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, aims to study the climate history of Mars and will be launched in 2013. NASA is funding the mission with about $485 million.

"The primary objective of MAVEN is to understand how Mars lost its atmosphere," said Robert Lin, a professor of astrophysics and the deputy principal investigator of the mission, who is leading the UC Berkeley effort. "Early on, there's a lot of evidence that Mars had a warm and wet atmosphere-a dense atmosphere. And of course, all that is gone now."

UC Berkeley scientists will contribute four instruments and parts of two instruments that will be used to probe the Martian atmosphere and climate, Lin said. The instruments will measure the atmospheric composition of ions, solar wind and electron population on Mars.

The instruments, which will cost around $20 million, will be built at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory.

After a 10-month journey to Mars, the spacecraft will spend a year in orbit around the planet, gathering data and analyzing the upper atmosphere, said Emily CoBabe-Ammann, head of communications and public outreach for the mission.

Lin said the mission will help researchers fully understand how gases escaped and continue to escape from Mars's atmosphere.

"Right now, the sun still is active, and when the solar wind and energetic particles come, if we can measure how much it's losing now, we can extrapolate back to when it had a thick atmosphere and figure out how fast it lost it," he said.

Lin helped form the theory that the planet may have once had a strong magnetic field like that of Earth, which would have trapped in atmospheric gases. However, it lost its magnetic field some time within the last four billion years, which allowed the gases to be exposed to solar wind and escape into space.

CoBabe-Ammann said that although gases have been depleted, that doesn't necessarily mean that the planet is not habitable.

"If there was a time in the Martian history when there was water on the surface and a lot of these volatile compounds we would look on this as being really favorable," she said. "That's sort of the magic configuration (for life)."

Learning more about the Martian climate could also help scientists learn about climate change on similar planets, including Earth, Lin said.

"The whole business of how planets lose their atmosphere is very interesting, because some of the same processes go on on the Earth," he said. "In principle, the same process could happen here."


Rachel Gross covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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