Measuring Mars: The MAVEN magnetometer (w/ video)

Mar 26, 2013 by Claire De Saravia
Artist's Concept of MAVEN. Credit: NASA

When the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission begins its journey to the Red Planet in 2013, it will carry a sensitive magnetic-field instrument built and tested by a team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Scheduled for launch in late 2013, MAVEN will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere.

The goal of MAVEN is to determine the history of the loss of to space through time, providing answers about Mars' .

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
When you navigate with a compass you can orient yourself thanks to Earth's global magnetic field. But on Mars, if you were to walk around with a compass it would haphazardly point from one anomaly to another, because the Red Planet does not possess a global magnetosphere. Scientists think that this lack of a protective magnetic field may have allowed the solar wind to strip away the Martian atmosphere over billions of years, and now NASA's MAVEN spacecraft will study this process in detail with its pair of ring core fluxgate magnetometers. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Dan Gallagher

By measuring the current rate of escape to space and gathering enough information about the relevant processes, scientists will be able to infer how the planet's atmosphere evolved.

The trip to Mars takes 10 months, and MAVEN will go into orbit around the planet in September 2014.

The Goddard-built MAVEN magnetometer will be a sensitive tool investigating what remains of the Red Planet's magnetic "shield." It will play a key role in studying the planet's atmosphere and interactions with , helping answer the question of why a planet once thought to have an abundance of liquid water became a frozen desert.

"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 (CU/LASP).

The magnetometer will measure the planet's magnetic field through a series of coils, each containing a magnetic ring wrapped around a metal core. The sensors, known as "flux gates," are driven in and out of saturation by applied magnetic fields.

If there is no ambient magnetic field, the sensors remain balanced. If there is an ambient field present, the sensors will go into saturation more quickly in one direction than the other. It's the imbalance that reveals the presence of an ambient field.

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

The importance of studying the planet's magnetic field is rooted in the theory that Mars lost its global magnetic field billions of years ago, allowing the solar wind to strip the atmosphere and dry out the planet.

Unlike Earth's global magnetic field, which surrounds the entire planet, Mars only has patches of magnetic field left in its crust. This can create pockets of atmosphere that are protected against solar wind and others that are left vulnerable.

By measuring sections of the planet's magnetic field, the magnetometer could help scientists create a bigger 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."

The magnetometer is one of six instruments that make up the Particles and Fields Package, being assembled by team members at the University of California, Berkeley. The magnetometer works with the other instruments from this package to gather data throughout the course of the projected yearlong orbit around the planet.

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 a very sensitive instrument, so engineers have to work to ensure the instrument doesn't accidentally measure the spacecraft's instead of the one the planet produces.

"We have to go to great extremes to be sure that we have minimized any magnetic fields from the spacecraft," Jakosky said. "We are working hard to build a very 'magnetically clean' spacecraft that will meet our needs with regard to the ."

The MAVEN principal investigator comes from CU/LASP. The university provides science operations, is building science instruments, and leads education/public outreach. NASA Goddard manages the project and is building two of the science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo., is building the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The University of California at Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory is building science instruments for the mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., provides navigation support, the Deep Space Network, and the Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

Explore further: Bright points in Sun's atmosphere mark patterns deep in its interior

Related Stories

NASA mission asks why Mars has no atmosphere

Oct 07, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA this week gave the green light to a mission to Mars that will seek to understand why and how the red planet lost its atmosphere 3-4 billion years ago.

Instrument delivered for NASA's upcoming Mars mission

Nov 19, 2012

(Phys.org)—A remote sensing instrument that will peer into the ultraviolet to offer clues to how Mars might have lost its atmosphere has arrived at Lockheed Martin for integration into NASA's Mars Atmosphere ...

Sputtering: How mars may have lost its atmosphere

Sep 13, 2012

Why is Mars cold and dry? While some recent studies hint that early Mars may have never been wet or warm, many scientists think that long ago, Mars once had a denser atmosphere that supported liquid water on ...

Recommended for you

Ceres and Vesta Converge in Virgo

2 hours ago

Don't let them pass you by. Right now and continuing through July, the biggest and brightest asteroids will be running on nearly parallel tracks in the constellation Virgo and so close together they'll easily ...

A full-spectrum Mars simulation in a box

2 hours ago

There are many reasons why Mars excels at destroying expensive equipment. For one thing, its entire surface is made of partially-magnetized dust. For another, Mars possesses just enough atmosphere so that ...

LADEE mission ends with planned lunar impact

3 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Ground controllers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., have confirmed that NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft impacted the surface ...

Proposed Mars 'Icebreaker' mission detailed

3 hours ago

Scientists supported by the Astrobiology Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) and Astrobiology Instrument Development Programs (ASTID) have outlined the proposed 'Icebreaker' mission to Mars in a recent ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Under some LED bulbs whites aren't 'whiter than white'

For years, companies have been adding whiteners to laundry detergent, paints, plastics, paper and fabrics to make whites look "whiter than white," but now, with a switch away from incandescent and fluorescent lighting, different ...