Blog Space 21 September 2014

NASA spacecraft enters Mars orbit to study atmosphere

Members of Maven team celebrate at the Lockheed Martin operations centre in Littleton, Colorado after confirmation that the spacecraft entered Mars' orbit.
Lockheed Martin

UPDATE: Maven entered its first elongated orbit of Mars on schedule at around 10:25pm EDT, 21 September (2:25am UTC; 12:25pm AEDT, 22 Sept) after a successful burn of its braking engines. The orbiter is now on track to begin its mission to determine how Mars lost its atmosphere and went from a warm, wet planet to a cold, dry one.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (or Maven for short) spacecraft has completed a 10-month, 711 million kilometre journey to Mars. Maven is the first orbiter sent to specifically measure the Red Planet's upper atmosphere and how it reacts with the Sun and the solar wind.

These observations will help scientists determine how much gas from Mars’ atmosphere has been lost to space throughout the planet’s history and what has driven that loss.

Tonight at 9:37pm EDT, Maven's six braking rockets will burn for a little over half an hour to slow the spacecraft so that it can enter a looping elongated orbit (see the video above and graphic below).

It will spend the next six weeks manoeuvring into an operational four-and-a-half-hour orbit that comes as close as 150 km and as far away as 6,200 km from Mars’ surface. It will then spend one (Earth) year monitoring what happens when the solar wind and other charged particles hit the upper layers of Mars’ atmosphere, stripping it away.

NASA hopes that, by learning about the processes involved, it will be able to build computer models to look back in time to see if Mars ever had the right conditions for life to evolve.

NASA has carefully designed the mission so Maven loses no time before getting down to work. Calibration of the mission’s three suites of science instruments – the Particles and Fields Package, the Remote Sensing Package and the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer – was completed during the cruise phase to Mars.

“Every day at Mars is gold,” said David Mitchell, Maven’s project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The early checks of instrument and spacecraft systems during cruise phase enable us to move into the science collection phase shortly after Maven arrives at Mars.”

Maven joins an increasing number of space and terrestrial vehicles from Earth to Mars. There are currently two US orbiters, two US rovers and a European orbiter there and India’s first Mars probe is due to arrive on Wednesday.

You can get more details of the Maven mission at the NASA website.

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