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NASA'S Mars atmosphere mission given the green light to proceed to development

NASA's mission to investigate the mystery of how Mars lost much of its atmosphere passed a critical milestone on October 4, 2010. NASA has given approval for the development and 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission.

Clues on the Martian surface, such as features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that only form in the presence of liquid water, suggest that Mars once had a denser atmosphere, which supported the presence of liquid water on the surface. As part of a dramatic climate change, most of the Martian atmosphere was lost. MAVEN will make definitive scientific measurements of present-day atmospheric loss that will offer insight into the Red Planet's history.

Michael Luther, on behalf of Dr. Ed Weiler, of the NASA Headquarters Science Mission Directorate led a confirmation review panel that approved the detailed plans, instrument suite, budget, and risk factor analysis for the spacecraft.

"A better understanding of the upper atmosphere and the role that escape to space has played is required to plug a major hole in our understanding of Mars. We're really excited about having the opportunity to address these fundamental science questions," said MAVEN Principal Investigator Dr. Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado (CU-LASP) at Boulder.

"The team has successfully met every major milestone since selection two years ago," said MAVEN Project Manager David Mitchell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "Looking forward, we are well positioned for the next push to critical design review in July 2011. In three short years, we'll be heading to Mars!"

The confirmation review, formally known as "Key Decision Point C," authorized continuation of the project into the development phase and set its cost and schedule. The next major mission milestone, the critical design review, will examine the detailed MAVEN system design. After a successful critical design review, the project team will assemble the spacecraft and its instruments.

"This project is a vital complement to past, present, and future Mars missions," said Dr. Michael Meyer, lead Mars Scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program in Washington. "MAVEN will take us a step closer in learning about the evolution of our intriguing celestial neighbor."

NASA Goddard will manage the project, which will cost $438 million excluding the separately government-furnished launch vehicle and telecommunications relay package. Goddard will also build some of the instruments for the mission. In addition to the PI coming from CU-LASP, the university will provide science operations, build instruments, and lead Education/Public Outreach. Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo., will build the spacecraft based on designs from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and 2001 Mars Odyssey missions and perform mission operations. The University of California-Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory will also build instruments for the mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., will provide navigation support, the Deep Space Network, and the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

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Nancy Neal-Jones | EurekAlert!
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Further reports about: Goddard Space Flight Center MAVEN Mars Martian Winds NASA Space

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