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Success! MAVEN Enters Orbit Around Red Planet

Sep 22, 2014 12:09 PM EDT

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars' orbit on Sunday, where it now will prepare its unprecedented mission to study the Red Planet's upper atmosphere.

"As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars' upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a news release.

"It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s."

MAVEN ended its 10-month journey at 7:24 p.m. PDT (10:24 p.m. EDT) Sunday just to begin another that will last for one year. But MAVEN is not quite there yet. First, the Martian explorer will spend six weeks getting situated in its final science orbit and testing its instruments and science-mapping commands.

Once MAVEN gets in position, it will stay that way for the next year, taking measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars' upper atmosphere and its interaction with the Sun and solar wind. Scientists hope the information will help them better understand how much gas from Mars' atmosphere has been lost to space and what processes drove that loss.

The primary mission includes five "deep-dip" campaigns, in which MAVEN's periapsis, or lowest orbit altitude, will be lowered from 93 miles (150 kilometers) to about 77 miles (125 kilometers). These measurements will provide information down to where the upper and lower atmospheres meet, giving scientists a full profile of the upper tier.

"This was a very big day for MAVEN," added David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "We're very excited to join the constellation of spacecraft in orbit at Mars and on the surface of the Red Planet."

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