Boston University To Participate In Mars Project

September 21, 2008

Boston University’s Center for Space Physics (CSP) announced today that it will participate in NASA’s next mission to Mars to study the planets atmosphere and climate history ““ particularly the history of water on the planet.

The new spacecraft — known as Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN or (MAVEN) — was one of 20 missions first proposed in 2006 for launch in 2013 as part of its Mars exploration program. MAVEN involves a consortium of university and NASA research groups. The $485 million mission will be led by Bruce Jakosky, Ph.D. at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Leading Boston University’s involvement is John T. Clarke, Professor of Astronomy who is an expert in the detection of signatures of different types of water in planetary atmospheres and a key member of the MAVEN team. Starting in the summer of 2009, he will lead an engineering and astronomy team testing various aspects of newly developed instruments for the satellite. They will also use the scientific data from MAVEN to learn about the historical changes in the Martian atmosphere.

“The loss of Mars’ atmosphere has been an ongoing mystery and MAVEN will help us solve it,” said Douglas McCuistion, NASA’s Director of the Mars Exploration Program.

Along with other members of the worldwide astronomy research community, he believes that Mars may have begun much like Earth. However, since the Earth is smaller and further from the sun, its atmosphere evolved in a very different way.

“Today, the Martian atmosphere is about half a percent as dense as the Earth’s and it’s about 95 percent carbon dioxide, which makes it very thin and very dry,” said Clarke. “The question is what happened to the original atmosphere of Mars?”

He maintains there are two likely possibilities: the atmosphere largely escaped and blew off into space, and the other is that it became frozen into the crust of the planet, much like the Earth’s permafrost.

Clarke explained that just as water on earth is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, water is sometimes found with heavier types of hydrogen, called deuterium. The same occurs on Mars as well as on comets and other bodies in the solar system. The measurement of these species and the design of an instrument component to do this was BU’s initial contribution to the MAVEN mission.

The gravity of Mars is able to hold on to the more massive deuterium forms of water a bit more strongly, so the current observations of the so-called deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio gives us important clues about how much water on Mars has escaped into space over time, noted Clarke.

“Our faculty, students and staff will be very much involved in the science of Mars for the next decade,” said Supriya Chakrabarti, director of Boston University’s Center for Space Physics. “We are delighted that Professor Clarke was able to bring this exciting opportunity to BU, the only university in New England to be part of the MAVEN mission.”

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