NASA's MAVEN spacecraft enters Mars orbit
WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
AP PhotoNASA's MAVEN spacecraft began orbiting Mars on Sunday, on a mission to study how the Red Planet's climate changed over time from warm and wet to cold and dry.
The unmanned orbiter has traveled more than 10 months and 442 million miles (711 million kilometers) to reach Mars for a first-of-its kind look at the planet's upper atmosphere.
"Wow, what a night. You get one shot with Mars orbit insertion and MAVEN nailed it tonight," said project manager David Mitchell.
The data from the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft aims to help scientists understand what happened to the water on Mars and the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere several billion years ago.
How Mars lost its atmosphere is one of science's biggest mysteries. The answers could shed light on the planet's potential to support life -- even if that was just microbial life -- long ago.
MAVEN's findings are also expected to help add to knowledge of how humans could survive on a future visit to the Red Planet, perhaps as early as 2030.
"Mars is a cool place, but there is not much atmosphere," said John Clarke of the MAVEN science team.
"It is very cold, it is well below zero. The atmosphere is about half a percent of what we are breathing," he added.
"But we know that Mars could change and it was probably different in the past. There is a lot of evidence of flowing water on the surface from Mars's ancient history."
Next, MAVEN will enter a six-week phase for tests.
It will then begin a one-year mission of studying the gases in Mars's upper atmosphere and how it interacts with the sun and solar wind.
"We are looking at early November as the official start of science," said MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky.
Much of MAVEN's year-long mission will be spent circling the planet 3,730 miles above the surface.
However, it will execute five deep dips to a distance of just 78 miles above the Martian landscape to get readings of the atmosphere at various levels.
NASA is the world's most successful space agency at sending rovers and probes to Mars, and past missions have included the Viking 1 and 2 in 1975 and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2005.
The US space agency's latest robotic vehicle, Curiosity, is exploring Gale Crater and Mount Sharp, looking for interesting rocks and returning data on whether the Martian environment shows evidence of a past ability to support life.
Later this week, an Indian spacecraft, the Mars Orbiter Mission, is expected to reach Mars.
The unmanned MOM probe is set to enter Mars's orbit in the coming days after 10 months in space, marking India's first mission to the Red Planet.
"We are anxiously awaiting the arrival in two days of the India MOM mission and we are hoping for their success," said Jakosky.
"We are sending them the best wishes from the entire MAVEN team for a successful orbit insertion and mission."