Research in space is always evolving but this past Saturday NASA had personal contact with Harrisonburg on the new MAVEN mission.

The Q & A teleconference with representatives from NASA’s main design engineer for the mission from Lockheed Martin and the mission manager from United Launch Alliance at Cape Canaveral, Fla. were able to shed light on their project.

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN, will be NASA’s first mission to study the upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind.

The 5,410 pound MAVEN spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral and travel to the atmosphere of Mars at speeds reaching around 60,000 miles per hour. The total cost for this mission is around $670 million and will last about one Earth year.

At Saturday’s event in the John C. Wells Planetarium in Miller Hall, about 40 students from JMU and local schools, as well as members of the Harrisonburg community learned more about the MAVEN mission, the spacecraft, Mars and its atmosphere.

“The goal of the MAVEN mission is to study how the Mars atmosphere evolved over time,” Meredith Elrod, a member of NASA’s planetary science team, said.

Elrod will take part in analyzing the data sent back to Earth from the MAVEN spacecraft.

“We know at one point there was water on the surface of Mars,” Elrod said. “Therefore it had a warmer, thicker atmosphere and had the ability to sustain life. We are trying to see what happened to that atmosphere and why it is disappearing.”

JMU students submitted numerous questions to the administrator running the conference which were sent to the NASA panel over the Internet. The questions were answered almost seconds later on the live feed from Cape Canaveral.

The questions ranged from the possibility of life on Mars to whether or not there would be future manned missions to the red planet.

“Although it will not be as bright and spectacular as if it were launched at night, you will be able to see the vehicle traveling in the atmosphere for a short time, although the weather may not make it that easy to see,” Jason Cowley, MAVEN mission manager from the United Launch Alliance, said. Crowley also designed the rocket that will launch the MAVEN spacecraft into space.

The other experts on the panel at Cape Canaveral include Christopher Waters from Lockheed Martin and Elrod from NASA’s planetary science team and Jane Jones, who is part of NASA’s public outreach and education program.

The experts on the panel used their knowledge and respective field expertise to educate the JMU community on the numerous aspects that go into a space mission.

“Here we have this group in Harrisonburg, Virginia, miles and miles away, and they have the opportunity to interact with the MAVEN team,” Becky Jaramillo, one of the program’s curators, said.

Jaramillo is the winner of the presidential science teacher of the year award and works at the National Institute of Aerospace.

Jaramillo says she was impressed with all the “brainiacs” at JMU and with their highly technical questions such as Mars’ magnetic field’s affect on the atmosphere and the nature of MAVEN’s orbital insertion into the atmosphere of Mars.

The MAVEN spacecraft is set to launch today at 1:28 p.m. EST from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. For more information on the MAVEN space mission, visit the mission page on NASA’s website at

Contact Steve Wildemann at