I came to CU in 1961 to pursue my fascination with petroleum geology. Boulder was the best place to feed my interest, and I wasn't disappointed.
Some five decades later, I am fascinated by a different type of geology where CU is front and center. On Nov. 18, NASA is scheduled to launch the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) project from Cape Canaveral. The mission has been a decade-plus in the making, but has a launch window of only three weeks. If it doesn't launch, it will be delayed another 26 months.
MAVEN aims to gain an understanding of the Martian upper atmosphere with an eye on determining the role the loss of atmospheric gases to space played in the planet's changing climate through time. As MAVEN's Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky told me, the geologic connection focuses on what happened over time on the surface of the red planet, where apparent dry lakes and riverbeds, as well as minerals that form only in the presence of water, suggest Mars once had a denser atmosphere that may have supported water. The details provide clues to what happened to the planet's atmosphere. Mars' molten core also changed through the eons, providing more pieces of the geologic and atmospheric puzzle.
More broadly, the insight MAVEN will make possible on Mars will also help scientists better understand our solar system and the universe, says Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), who is also a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences.
The $670 million MAVEN mission has a decided Colorado connection. CU-Boulder is providing the scientific operations, science instruments and leading education and public outreach. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. And United Launch Alliance is providing the Atlas 5 launch vehicle. Our state has the nation's second-largest aerospace economy and CU-Boulder receives more NASA funding than any public university in the country. It's safe to say Colorado is on center stage when it comes to space.
MAVEN is a great example of a public-private partnership in Colorado and also demonstrates research partnerships we have with colleague institutions in the Pac-12. CU leads the project, but colleagues at the University of California Berkeley provided a sciences instrument package.
The mission is also a great opportunity for our undergraduate and graduate students, some 120 of whom work on facets of space projects ranging from engineering and spacecraft operations to data management and scientific analysis.
MAVEN is a shining example of CU's national leadership role in space. As the project demonstrates, we are at the forefront of space science and a key contributor to a critical economic sector in Colorado and nationally.
We had a reminder recently of how deep our university's roots go with the U.S. space program after CU alumnus Scott Carpenter passed away last month. He was the first of CU's 18 alumni astronauts to fly in space (and the third U.S. man) and he exemplified the best of what our space program and the university have to offer.
We will keep our eyes on Cape Canaveral on Nov. 18 and follow the progress of the year-plus mission as it provides important scientific data. And as has been the case at CU the past several decades, we will also keep one eye on the future of space exploration and ensure that our university continues to play a central role.
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