NTB: What are the remote sensing instruments currently being integrated into MAVEN?

Mitchell: The Remote Sensing Package is actually a single instrument package which is comprised of two components, the Remote Sensing Data Processing Unit and the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer. The Remote Sensing Data Processing Unit provides power and data interfacing between the instrument and the spacecraft. The UltraViolet Spectrograph is the “observing” portion of the package that contains apertures, detectors, and mirrors which measure the ultraviolet spectra. In this spectrum, we can observe and better understand the composition of the atmosphere.

NTB: What will the instruments be analyzing?

Mitchell: The Remote Sensing Package will be analyzing the composition of the upper atmosphere in the ultraviolet wavelength. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) will analyze, in situ, various gas species and ions as MAVEN passes through the lower portion of the orbit, as low as 125 km from the Mars surface. The Particles & Fields Package will analyze much of the solar interactions with particles and fields observed at Mars and the atmosphere in general, including the electrons, ions, wave electric fields, and magnetic fields.

NTB: When will we see this launched to Mars?

Mitchell: Opening day of the launch period is November 18, 2013. We are currently tracking to that plan.

NTB: From a technology perspective, when you’re designing these packages, what would you say are your biggest challenges?

Mitchell: The good news is that a lot of technology is similar to technologies used on other missions. The team leveraged a lot of the instrument designs from previous missions’ instruments. For example, much of the Particles and Fields Package has flown on other types of missions, such as the STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) mission; that’s a mission that’s sun-orbiting versus the MAVEN Mars-orbiting mission. They’ve been able to utilize a lot of existing technology from other missions that have succeeded. The same applies with the Remote Sensing Package and with NGIMS. With the spacecraft, we’ve leveraged a lot from the heritage of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But even with the use of existing technology, every new build brings with it a new set of challenges brought on by various factors such as electronic parts obsolescence, different environmental conditions in space, and different people building the flight hardware. That’s where a rigorous test program, quality assurance, verification program, etc. are so critical, ultimately, to mission success.

NTB: What are the next big milestones for this project?

Mitchell: Right now, we’re in the thick of it with delivering all of the instruments. Of the 8 we have slated to be installed, 6 of them have been delivered and integrated here at Lockheed Martin. A bunch of the Particles & Fields Packages came in a week ago [December 2012], and they’re bolting them on now and doing harness connections. The Remote Sensing Package was delivered last month, and then trailing will be one of the Particles & Field packages as well as the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS).

In January, the next big milestone is to start system-level environmental testing. We’ll go into acoustics, EMI, EMC, migration, and thermal vacuum testing. We hope to wrap up at the end of the spring, and then the current plan is to ship to the Cape [Canaveral] in the beginning of August. Then we’re just on the road to integration with the launch vehicle and then on to launch. All the hardware is really coming together. So far, things are talking to each other the way they should be talking to each other. There haven’t been a lot of surprises. There haven’t been a lot of hardware changes or software rewrites. We used engineering development units for spacecraft subsystems. We plugged them into this simulated spacecraft, ran through a lot of the scripts, and made sure everything [worked together]. Now that the real flight hardware is coming in, we’re seeing very little surprises. So far, so good. We’ll get into environmental testing, and then there are typically some surprises. So it’s about: How do we respond to that and work through the issues? So far, I’ve seen a great team working together, and I expect we’ll continue to operate that way.

NTB: What is your favorite part of the job?

Mitchell: There’s something about Mars missions I now see that really gets the excitement going with everybody. It’s all hands on deck. They’re very skilled and a real pleasure to work with.

For years, you’re seeing these designs on paper, and they get reviewed and reviewed. Now we’re seeing it all come together. The hardware’s being built, and the hardware’s working as designed. That’s very exciting. Getting the launch campaign is another part of the excitement. What will really be great is when we get to Mars and we start getting the data to the science community. They’ve been waiting for this for many, many years. The principal investigator has worked 9 almost 10 years on the job, so it’ll be well over a decade before he starts getting the data that he’s dreamed about here.

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