The MAVEN spacecraft will become the fourth operational spacecraft in orbit around Mars when it reaches the Red Planet in 10 months, assuming the three already there remain active. NASA’s Mars Odyssey (pictured) is the elder of the group, having launched in 2001. Launched in 2003, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express is the middle child and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005 is the young one in the neighborhood.
On the surface, two of NASA’s rovers are diligently evaluating the features and aspects of the Red Planet up close. Mars Opportunity, launched in 2003, and the Mars Science Laboratory called Curiosity is a relative new-comer, having landed at Gale Crater in August of last year.
Omar Baez, left, of NASA’s Launch Services Program, or LSP, is launch manager for MAVEN. He is the highest authority during the countdown and provides NASA’s “go/no-go” decision to the mission director. He sits at a console in the Atlas Space Operations Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a building known as the ASOC. He leads a contingent of specialized launch controllers and support staff based at several different locations on launch day.
Bruce Jakosky, right, is the principal investigator for the MAVEN mission. Jakosky discussed the mission and his role in it during an interview you can read at https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/maven/team/jakosky.html
Propellant-loading work is going smoothly this morning with the launch team reporting the LO2 level on the Centaur upper stage at 80 percent. Launch remains on track for 1:28 p.m. EST.
The launch teams are starting the steps to load about 50,000 gallons of liquid oxygen into the first stage of the Atlas V. The lines and tanks have been chilled to accept the minus-297 degree propellant. About 26,000 gallons of refined kerosene, or RP-1, flowed into the first stage fuel tanks during the wet dress rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. Since kerosene doesn’t have to be kept cold the way the cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel for the Centaur do, the fuel stayed inside the Atlas tank.
NASA’s MAVEN Launch Blog originates today inside Hangar AE at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida just down the beach from Space Launch Complex 41 where the Mars-bound spacecraft stands ready for launch. AE, as NASA folks call it, traces its history back to before astronauts flew. It was built in 1959 and has seen numerous modifications. It houses a mission director’s center and three Launch Vehicle Data Centers all complete with dozens of consoles that keep the launch teams and support staff connected in terms of data and voice communications. NASA’s Launch Services Program uses AE in day-to-day business.
The hangar also has a high bay and clean room that was used to process mission hardware including the Wake Shield Facility that flew on space shuttle Columbia on STS-80 and the Far Ultraviolet Spectrum Explorer, or FUSE.
For those folks near Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, there is a list of good viewing locations here.
Liquid oxygen will start flowing into the Centaur upper stage tank momentarily. The Centaur will take about 4,000 gallons of the super-cold liquid oxygen. After the Atlas V booster stage completes the first phase of launch, the Centaur’s single RL-10 engine will ignite, mixing the oxygen with liquid hydrogen to generate 22,300 pounds of thrust to lift MAVEN on its way to Mars.
The pipes leading from propellant storage tanks to the Atlas V rocket have been chilled to handle the cryogenic chemicals that will begin moving through them shortly. The chilldown is handled remotely by launch team controllers who basically set a very slow flow of cold materials through the lines to condition them.
MAVEN is NASA’s way of saying the “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution” mission. It takes a lot less time to just say MAVEN. Considering that the word maven means an expert in a particular field that is looking to share that knowledge with others, the acronym works. NASA’s MAVEN mission is equipped to investigate the upper atmosphere Mars in more detail than ever and show researchers on Earth what happened to remove the heavier elements from the air around the planet long ago.
NASA has a long history of using acronyms to shorten complex mission names. Even NASA itself is an acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The agency’s early manned flights in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo days did not go by acronyms, but most unmanned probes these days choose that route. Recent exceptions include Juno, the Jupiter-bound bound spacecraft that launched Aug. 5, 2011.
The launch team picked up the count to today’s launch again at the T-2 hour mark after a planned hold. The next step is to begin loading cryogenic – or super-cold – propellants into the Atlas V first stage and Centaur upper stage. Liquid oxygen with a temperature of minus-297 degrees will be pumped into the first stage where it will mix with kerosene inside the RD-180 engine during launch. The Centaur will be loaded with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. LH2, as they call liquid hydrogen here, is one of the coldest materials known. Its temperature is minus-423 degrees. Absolute zero is considered about minus-459 degrees.