Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mars Probes MAVEN and MOM Arrive at Red Planet This Month

An artist's interpretation of NASA's MAVEN mission, with Mars in the background. 

The probe is scheduled to start orbiting Mars on Sept. 21.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

The planet Mars is about to have some company. Two new spacecraft, one from the United States and the other from India, are closing in on the Red Planet and poised to begin orbiting Mars by the end of this month.

The U.S.-built probe, NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft, is expected to enter orbit around Mars on Sept. 21.

Just days later, on Sept. 24, India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) orbiter is due to make its own Mars arrival when it enters orbit. Both MOM and MAVEN launched to space in 2013.

MAVEN is the first mission devoted to probing the Martian atmosphere, particularly to understand how it has changed during the planet's history.

An artist's view of India's first Mars probe, the heart of the Mars Orbiter Mission, in orbit around the Red Planet. 

India's first Mars orbiter will arrive at its target on Sept. 24, 2014.

Credit: India Space Research Organisation

Before that happens, however, the spacecraft must burn its engines to go into orbit around the planet, and pass a commissioning phase while taking a few precautions for a "low-risk" situation where a comet will pass fairly close to Mars.

"We've been developing MAVEN for about 11 years, and it comes down to a 33-minute rocket burn on Sept. 21," MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Space.com.

The spacecraft can change tracks as late as 6 hours before entering orbit, but right now, it is so close to the correct path that a planned orbital maneuver on Sept. 12 won't be needed, Jakosky said.

Comet Siding Spring will pass near Mars on Oct. 19, and around that time, MAVEN will take a break from its commissioning to do observations of the comet and the planet's upper atmosphere.

Although not much dust is predicted to result from the event, as a precaution, controllers will turn off nonessential instruments and move the solar panels edge-on to the dust.

The spacecraft will also be behind Mars for 20 minutes during the comet's closest approach.

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