Monday, September 22, 2014

NASA's Maven explorer arrives at Mars after one year transit

In this artist concept provided by NASA, the MAVEN spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere. 

It arrived on Sunday Sept. 21, 2014.

MAVEN's 442 million mile journey from Earth culminated in a dramatic engine burn, pulling the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit. 

The Maven mission is designed to simply orbit the planet, not land. Credit: AP Photo/NASA

NASA's Maven spacecraft arrived at Mars late Sunday after a 442 million-mile (711 million kilometer) journey that began nearly a year ago.

The robotic explorer fired its brakes and successfully slipped into orbit around the red planet, officials confirmed.

"This is such an incredible night," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's chief for science missions.

Members of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) team celebrate at the Lockheed Martin operations center in Littleton, Colorado, Sunday night, after getting confirmation that the spacecraft entered Mars' orbit.

Now the real work begins for the $671 million mission, the first dedicated to studying Mars' upper atmosphere.

Flight controllers in Colorado will spend the next six weeks adjusting Maven's altitude and checking its science instruments.

Then Maven will start probing the upper atmosphere of Mars. The spacecraft will conduct its observations from orbit; it's not meant to land.

Scientists believe the Martian atmosphere holds clues as to how Earth's neighbor went from being warm and wet billions of years ago to cold and dry.

That early wet world may have harbored microbial life, a tantalizing question yet to be answered.

NASA launched Maven last November from Cape Canaveral, the 10th U.S. mission sent to orbit the red planet.

Three earlier ones failed, and until the official word came of success late Sunday night, the entire team was on edge.

"I don't have any fingernails any more, but we've made it," said Colleen Hartman, deputy director for science at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "It's incredible."

The spacecraft was clocking more than 10,000 mph (16,000 kph) when it hit the brakes for the so-called orbital insertion, a half-hour process.

The world had to wait 12 minutes to learn the outcome, once it occurred, because of the lag in spacecraft signals given the 138 million miles (222 million kilometers) between the two planets on Sunday.

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