KU professor among team analyzing data from Mars explorer

This past Sunday, Kansas University professor Thomas Cravens was glued to his television. But he wasn’t watching football.

He was watching NASA TV as the MAVEN — short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN — spacecraft, arrived in Mars’ orbit after traveling 442 million miles over 10 months.

“I was very relieved when the engines shut off when they should have,” Cravens said.

Now for the next Earth year, Cravens, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy, will be among a number of interdisciplinary scientists analyzing and interpreting data collected by MAVEN about Mars’ atmosphere.

The mission represents an unprecedented study of Mars’ upper atmosphere and will help scientists learn more about the history of the planet’s climate.

“Our job is to put all this diverse information together; what is the escape rate of the atmosphere; where does it all go?” Cravens said.

Older surfaces of Mars reveal that there was water. MAVEN, a robotic explorer about the length of a school bus, will help provide answers about where the water and carbon dioxide went.

Cravens said the information helps scientists understand how and why Mars is the way it is in comparison with other planets.

“Why does Earth have the right atmosphere? Why not Venus, which is very hot. Why not Mars, which is cold. It’s the Goldilocks effect; the Earth was just right,” he said.

Cravens, who has worked at KU since 1988, said his interest in space and the planets started as child. “It is fun to me to hop from planet to planet learning how they are the same and how they are different,” he said.

The $671 million MAVEN mission represents a step in NASA’s bid to send astronauts to Mars. Cravens said he believes it will happen. “It comes down to politics and budgets,” he said.