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BU professors collaborate with scientists at NASA to launch satellite

Boston University astronomy professors John Clarke, Paul Withers and Michael Mendillo collaborated with NASA on MAVEN, a small satellite launched Monday that will orbit mars. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA
Boston University astronomy professors John Clarke, Paul Withers and Michael Mendillo collaborated with NASA on MAVEN, a small satellite launched Monday that will orbit mars. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA

Three Boston University professors joined scientists at the National Aeronautics Space Administration to launch a satellite on Monday that will explore the atmosphere of the planet Mars.

The satellite, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, is a Mars scout mission funded by NASA that will orbit around the planet in order to study its atmosphere, said College of Arts and Sciences professor of astronomy John Clarke. The satellite will investigate erosion channels on Mars that indicate liquid water may have existed on the surface at some time.

“The main scientific goal is to understand the history of the Martian atmosphere,” Clarke said. “We think that when Mars was young, there was a thicker atmosphere than there is today … If we can understand the details, maybe we can go back in time and determine what the conditions may have been like in the past.”

Although many satellites have been launched to Mars, MAVEN is unique in that it will explore the planet’s atmosphere rather than its surface, said Dwayne Brown, a spokesperson for NASA.

“It’s the first mission dedicated to exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars,” Brown said “… To put it in simple terms, it’s going to try to find out the dramatic and catastrophic global climate change that happened to Mars, and we hope maybe this can help us understand what really happened to the planet.”

The significance of the project, Brown said, is researchers at NASA believe the atmosphere of Mars was once very similar to Earth’s atmosphere. MAVEN will strive to discover the nature of the climate change that transformed Mars from a planet capable of supporting microorganism life into a barren desert world.

“Mars was once, in many ways, just like Earth, and something catastrophic happened to Mars,” Brown said. “Could that same thing happen to Earth that happened to Mars? MAVEN will help us find out.”

Clarke, along with CAS professors of astronomy Michael Mendillo and Paul Withers, joined the NASA team to participate in the project by analyzing the data the satellite sends back to Earth, Brown said. Astronomy professors across the country collaborated with NASA to build MAVEN, and many more will continue.

“About six months ago, NASA put out an announcement of opportunities for other scientists to study Mars to help analyze the data,” Mendillo said. “Professor Paul Withers and myself applied for that program and we both got accepted … So, when you add in Professor Clarke, we’ve got one of the largest groups at any university studying Mars.”

Mendillo said although their study of Mars’s atmosphere is valuable in its fulfillment of curiosity, the research they obtain will also be beneficial to understanding the atmosphere of planet Earth.

“There’s always the search for just pure knowledge to satisfy our wonders of various places in the solar system,” Mendillo said. “But there’s also some practical concerns. Here’s a planet that’s not too far away from the sun as we are, a little smaller than we are with lower gravity … that lost all of its atmosphere. There’s an environmental concern … of how a planet can have catastrophic things happen to its atmosphere that’s certainly relevant to is here on earth.”

As the professors from BU’s astronomy department continue their work on MAVEN, BU’s graduate students will be given opportunities to analyze the data sent back by the satellite. Mendillo said the project will also fund undergraduate and faculty research as more data surfaces.

“We’re a state-of-the-art research university with major research projects in all areas of science and engineering,” Mendillo said. “We’ve all been part of other NASA missions in the past, so it’s not as if we’re breaking into a higher rank. We’re already there.”

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