NASA's latest baby, the MAVEN Mars orbiter, has some scary times ahead. It a scene straight out of medieval torture, the spacecraft will be strapped down and physically shaken until it nears its limit. Then it will be blasted with heat and, after that, frozen solid. Sounds extreme, right? That's the point - if MAVEN can't survive these tests, it will never survive the extremes of space travel.
(Full disclosure: The lead scientific institution for MAVEN is my employer, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado - Boulder. LASP has also provided instruments for the mission.)
MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, will become the first spacecraft to study the upper atmosphere of Mars. First, though, it has to pass a series of strenuous tests designed to test if the probe is sturdy enough the trip. The "shake" part of the test simulates the extreme forces experienced during liftoff. The Atlas V rocket which will be used to launch the vehicle will vibrate very strongly during its ascent through the atmosphere. These jolts could jar free vital connections or mis-align instruments, which could substantially damage the mission. A large, vibrating plate will simulate the ride. At the end of the test, all the instruments must continue to operate normally.
The same is true after the heating and cooling tests. Space is cold; liftoff is not. As the spacecraft warms and cools, the metal in it will expand and contract. The probe has been designed to accommodate this, but it still must be tested. The tests will be carried out at Lockheed Martin in Denver, the company responsible for assembly of the complete ship. If MAVEN passes its tests, it will be on track for a November launch.
After launch. MAVEN will take a leisurely eleven month journey to the red planet. Once in orbit, it will study the composition of Mars' upper atmosphere and the environmental conditions at the space-atmosphere boundary. It's believed that the planet once had a denser atmosphere. How and on what timescales that atmosphere was lost are still up for debate. By making measurements of the solar wind at Mars, as well as quantifying the current rates of atmospheric loss, MAVEN hopes to answer some of these questions and better explain a rather unknown chapter of martian history.