The Maven spacecraft is already in Mars orbit. The last Martian adventure of the space agency of the United States (NASA, in English) arrived with success.
The probe crossed space for ten months at full speed until late on Sunday it put on the brakes, that is, it activated its turbines.
With 33 minutes of propulsion, the speed was damped to allow it to be captured by the gravity of Mars.
Maven arrived to study the atmosphere of the red planet and thus try to understand the process that led to its running out of air.
At present, the minimum pressure is so low that the water on the surface would boil.
The Maven data will allow scientists to build better models of the current and past climate of Mars.
«Previous spacecraft have taken measurements and we’ve learned a lot about the upper atmosphere, but they haven’t been able to give a complete top-down picture,» says the project’s principal investigator, Bruce Jakosky.
«We hope that Maven is a discovery mission, that almost everything we observe will lead us to important new data about the current environment of Mars and how it has evolved over time,» adds the researcher from the University of Colorado (USA). ).
The arrival of the US probe will be followed, 48 hours later, by India’s first satellite.
The Mars Orbit Mission, informally known as Mangalyaan, has a different goal.
It will try to find methane, a potential indicator of biological activity on the planet.
«NASA is really interested in cooperating and cross-checking the data,» says Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences.
«When both spacecraft are in orbit and scientists start to understand the data, those opportunities will arise.»
Maven’s grand maneuver placed the spacecraft in a 35-hour elliptical orbit.
Confirmation of the capture reached Earth at 2:30 GMT on Monday.
In the coming weeks, engineers will work to bring the spacecraft into a 4-5 hour operational orbit that will bring it as close as 150 kilometers to the surface, but will also send it as close as 6,200 kilometers.
That same period will be used to test the instruments.
The current atmosphere of Mars, composed mostly of carbon dioxide, is extremely thin, with a surface pressure of just 0.6% of Earth’s.
The Martian landscape, however, shows channels that show abundant flowing water, but the planet once had a much denser atmosphere in the past.
Some of the air probably reacted and was incorporated with minerals on the surface.
But the most plausible explanation for its disappearance is that it was eroded by the solar wind, the stream of energetic particles from the Sun.
That was possible because, unlike Earth, Mars does not have a protective magnetic field to reflect the star’s abrasive assault.
Some Maven instruments will focus on the solar influence, studying the energy it delivers to the planet and its atmosphere.
Others will study the composition and behavior of the atmosphere itself, and this will imply some approach maneuvers to the surface in order to take samples of the molecules directly.
The intention is to measure the rate at which these different molecules are currently being lost and to differentiate between the various processes responsible.
Scientists will use this information to learn more about the history of the planet’s climate, from when billions of years ago it was warmer and wetter, and potentially habitable for life, to the current state.
Important elements have already arrived from Curiosity, the robot that has traveled the surface and has been able to study the lower atmosphere.
In its laboratory, the robot regularly analyzes the Martian air. He has already used the concentration of argon to show that enrichment of the heavier form of this element has occurred throughout geological history.
That shows that the lightest argon atoms have been lost from the upper part of the atmosphere.
An early demonstration of Marven’s abilities will come in October, when a comet makes a close pass to the planet.
That will surely launch a trail of space dust high into the atmosphere.
«If the amount of dust hitting the upper part of the atmosphere is significant, the temperature will rise… and it will expand,» says Professor Jakosky.
«In addition, the water from the comet that reaches the atmosphere will begin to populate it with an extra set of molecules,» he adds.
«We will study this disturbance with the addition of energy and matter and see how long it will take to decay: that will tell us a lot about the physical processes in the upper Martian atmosphere.»