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Going to Mars with MAVEN

by Dani Johnson

May 10, 2013

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Donate The Mars Rovers have shown us that minerals exist on Mars that only form in the presence of water. This discovery confirms the idea that the barren planet used to have potentially life-bearing water on its surface. Right now, the planet's atmosphere is so thin that liquid water can't exist because it evaporates too quickly into the diffuse air. What little water that still exists on the dusty planet is frozen in the subzero temperatures that exist over most of the surface. NASA is asking, "What happened to make the Martian atmosphere so thin?" and The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission is going to provide the data to answer that question and many more.

MAVEN is scheduled to be launched towards the red planet in November of this year. Sometime around Fall 2014 the spacecraft will be guided into orbit around Mars and briefly dip into the thin atmosphere to gather particles. One thing that MAVEN will measure is isotope ratios to determine how much water has been lost in the planet's lifetime. According to Bill Steigerwald from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center,
"Isotopes are heavier versions of an element. For example, deuterium is a heavy version of hydrogen. Normally, two atoms of hydrogen join to an oxygen atom to make a water molecule, but sometimes the heavy (and rare) deuterium takes a hydrogen atom's place.

When water gets lofted into Mars' upper atmosphere, solar radiation can break it apart into hydrogen (or deuterium) and oxygen. Hydrogen escapes faster because it is lighter than deuterium. Since the lighter version escapes more often, over time, the Martian atmosphere has less and less hydrogen compared to the amount of deuterium remaining. The Martian atmosphere therefore becomes richer and richer in deuterium.

The MAVEN team will measure the amount of deuterium compared to the amount of hydrogen in Mars' upper atmosphere, which is the planet's present-day deuterium to hydrogen (D/H) ratio. They will compare it to the ratio Mars had when it was young"the early D/H ratio. (The early ratio can be measured from the D/H ratio in ancient Martian minerals and estimated from observations of the D/H ratio in comets and asteroids, which are believed to be pristine, "fossil" remnants of our solar system's formation.)"
Since Mars is a planet that is similar to Earth in many ways, it is very important for us to study and determine what caused the planet to lose its atmosphere therefore losing its potential to support life. It is also important to increase awareness and excitement about space exploration, because we cannot innovate without people who participate. For this purpose, NASA is asking that people get involved in the MAVEN mission by holding an art and poetry contest that will feature its winners on a DVD that will accompany the spacecraft to Mars. Students around the world were invited to submit a work of art involving the phrase "I am going to Mars with Maven" and the winner's art will be featured on the cover and within the data of the DVD. NASA is also inviting everyone worldwide to submit their name to be included on the data in the DVD and they are holding a poetry contest. Every name that is submitted will be present in the data, but only 3 poems will be selected. The winners will also be displayed on the mission's website for the world to see.

The art contest is already over, but the poem contest won't be over until July 1st and I put in my entry just this evening. The contest rules include that the poem must be a Haiku with the first line having exactly 5 syllables, the second line having exactly 7 syllables and the third line being exactly 5 syllables. Even if you don't want to submit a poem, you can submit your name and it will definitely make it to Mars next year. You even get to print out a certificate of participation. This is an excellent exercise for the classroom!

You even get a really cool certificate of participation that would look really awesome on any kid's (or adult's) bulletin board!

I submitted my name and poem and printed out my fancy certificate of participation! My haiku is as follows:

Tiny Mars rover
Tallest volcano around

I encourage everyone to participate and provide the opportunity for the children that you know to also participate as this is an excellent opportunity to introduce a child to the wonders of space.

by Dani Johnson

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