Summary:

The spacecraft will spend 10 months journeying to Mars, where it will focus on the planet’s upper atmosphere. The data it collects could help explain the disappearance of water on the planet.

NASA MAVEN
photo: NASA

The NASA MAVEN spacecraft, which will gather information on Mars’ past climate, is now undertaking its 10 month mission to Mars after a successful 10:28 a.m. PT launch today.

MAVEN will arrive at Mars in September 2014 and then begin orbiting, ranging in altitude from 78 to more than 3,800 miles above the planet’s surface. It will use its on-board scientific instruments to document the characteristics of each part of Mars’ upper atmosphere and ionosphere. It will also measure how the planet interacts with the sun and its associated particles.

The data will help scientists determine if Mars was ever habitable and what caused its atmosphere to thin and water to disappear. While NASA has been sending crafts to Mars for nearly 50 years now, this is the first time a mission has focused on studying the planet’s upper atmosphere. MAVEN’s work will also complement the Curiosity rover goals and inform the development of future missions.

“After 10 years of working on this, I can’t tell you how excited I am to see this finished spacecraft ready to go,” principal investigator Bruce Jakosky said in a release. “Mars is a complicated system, just as complicated as the Earth in its own way. You can’t hope, with a single spacecraft, to study all aspects and to learn everything there is to know about it. With MAVEN, we’re exploring the single biggest unexplored piece of Mars so far.”

MAVEN is composed of a 5,400 pound cube flanked by wing-like solar panels. Altogether, it is 37 feet long. It will travel to Mars aboard a rocket before being released into orbit.

NASA MAVEN

The MAVEN launch was a key NASA responsibility threatened by the October government shutdown. Beginning today, NASA had a 20 day period when cosmic conditions were acceptable for launch.

“Launch is an important event, but it’s only a step along the way to getting the science measurements,” Jakosky said in a previous release. “We’re excited about the science we’ll be doing, and are anxious now to get to Mars.”

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