What NASA's MAVEN Probe Has Learned From 1,000 Mars Orbits

What the orbiter learned from 1,000 laps around Mars.

April 9, 2015, 11:04 AM

— -- NASA's MAVEN orbiter has completed its 1,000th lap around Mars, where it has been stationed for the past few months studying the Red Planet's upper atmosphere.

MAVEN, an acronym for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, became acquainted with Mars on Nov. 16 and ever since then has been orbiting the Red Planet trying to help scientists unlock some of the mysteries of Mars.

A high-altitude dust cloud and an aurora stretching deep into the Martian atmosphere have been two of the biggest mysteries MAVEN has observed during its time in orbit.

Since the probe has only been at work for four months, researchers said it remains unclear if it the dust cloud is temporary or a long-lasting phenomenon.

Mars' two moons, Phobos and Deimos, may be the possible culprits for the clouds, according to NASA. Other possibilities include a collection of dust from the atmosphere or particles carried by solar wind away from the sun.

NASA said the aurora was likely caused by energetic particles from the sun. The particles were able to strike deeper into Mars' atmosphere since the Red Planet lost its protective magnetic field billions of years ago.

"The spacecraft and instruments continue to work well," Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN's principal investigator, said in a statement. "We’re building up a picture of the structure and composition of the upper atmosphere, of the processes that control its behavior, and of how loss of gas to space occurs."

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