There are already 3 rovers on the surface of Mars, and another 3 orbiters circling the planet at a distance, however in the coming days Mars is about to get a little more crowded. Two new spacecraft, one from NASA, and one from the Indian space agency ISRO will arrive in orbit around Mars and begin yet more experiments to unveil the secrets of the Red Planet.
The first is a NASA vehicle, known as the Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe, launched a little over 10 months ago. In actual fact, the spacecraft was lucky to reach the planet at all. Due to the US government shutdown in 2013, the MAVAN craft almost missed its launch window, and would have faced a 22 month delay. Only through emergency intervention funding via Congress was the project able to take off in time.
MAVEN aims to discover how it is possible that Mars went from being a planet with a thick and dense, Earth-like atmosphere, to the current situation where it only has a thin atmosphere of CO2. To do this, it will make a series of risky maneuvers whereby it will fly low over the plant and scoop up molecules of its atmosphere to study.
The second craft, launched by India, is the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) also known as Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for ‘Mars Craft’). Launched during the same orbit window as the NASA probe, it will arrive in Martian orbit tomorrow, on the 24th of September. Despite having the distinction of the being the cheapest (in real terms) probe ever sent to Mars, this craft nonetheless possesses a significant scientific payload.
It primary mission is to investigate the trace levels of methane in the Martian atmosphere. As this gas is quite volatile, its presence indicates that it is being continuously produced on Mars, either through volcanism, or biological action, making it a promising area to study in the search for life. In addition, the craft also features ground imaging equipment which it will use to carry out thorough mineralogy surveys of the planet’s surface.
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