NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Designed To Study Mars' Magnetic Field
March 27, 2013

NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft Designed To Study Mars’ Magnetic Field

WATCH VIDEO: [NASA | MAVEN Magnetometer]

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft is scheduled for launch later this year, and with it will launch an instrument designed to study Mars' magnetic field.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission will be carrying a sensitive magnetic-field instrument that will help investigate what remains of Mars' magnetic "shield." This Maven magnetometer will be playing a key role in studying the planet's atmosphere and interactions with solar wind.

“The MAVEN magnetometer is key to unraveling the nature of the interactions between the solar wind and the planet,” said MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky from University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (CU/LASP).

The magnetometer will measure the planet's magnetic field through coils that contain a magnetic ring wrapped around a metal core. These sensors are driven in and out of saturation by applied magnetic fields. If there is no ambient magnetic field, the sensors will remain balanced. However, if there is an ambient field present, they will go into saturation more quickly in one direction than the other.

“A magnetometer is like an electronic compass,” Jack Connerney, mission co-investigator at Goddard, said in a statement. “But we measure the strength, as well as the direction, of the magnetic field.”

Understanding Mars' magnetic field is important in looking into the theory that the Red Planet lost its global magnetic field billions of years ago, allowing solar wind to have its way with the planet's atmosphere.

Mars only has patches of magnetic field left in its crust, creating just pockets of atmosphere that are protected against solar wind. MAVEN's magnetometer will help scientists get a larger picture of the planet's overall atmosphere.

“The magnetometer helps us see where the atmosphere is protected by mini-magnetospheres and where it´s open to solar wind,” Connerney said. “We can study the solar wind impact and how efficient it is at stripping the atmosphere.”

MAVEN is devoted to helping to understand the history of the loss of atmospheric gases to space through time, giving scientists a peak at Mars' climate evolution. The spacecraft will launch late in November 2013 and will be the first mission with the primary goal of understanding the Martian upper atmosphere.

The spacecraft will go into orbit and pass closely over the planet's surface, and then move further away to study solar wind beyond the planet's influence. The magnetometer is one of six other instruments that will be part of MAVEN's Particles and Fields Package.

“The assembly and integration of MAVEN has gone very smoothly and we´re excited to test our work over the next six months,” said Guy Beutelschies, MAVEN program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. “Environmental testing is a crucial set of activities designed to ensure the spacecraft can operate in the extreme conditions of space.”

MAVEN will be leaving Lockheed Martin Space Systems facilities in early August to go to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.