NASA’s Maven spacecraft arrived at Mars late Sunday after a 442 million-mile journey that began nearly a year ago.
The robotic explorer fired its brakes and successfully slipped into orbit around the red planet, officials confirmed.
“I think my heart’s about ready to start again,” said Maven’s chief investigator, Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado. “All I can say at this point is, ‘We’re in orbit at Mars, guys!’”
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, and observing a comet streaking by. Then in early November, Maven will start probing the upper atmosphere of Mars. The spacecraft will conduct its observations from orbit; it’s not meant to land.
In the sky: 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.”
Maven joins three spacecraft already circling Mars, two American and one European. And the traffic jam isn’t over: India’s first interplanetary probe, Mangalyaan, will reach Mars in two days and also aim for orbit.
Martian air: Jakosky, who’s with the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, hopes to learn where all the water on Mars went, along with the carbon dioxide that once comprised an atmosphere thick enough to hold moist clouds.
The gases may have been stripped away by the sun early in Mars’ existence, escaping into the upper atmosphere and out into space. Maven’s observations should be able to extrapolate back in time, Jakosky said.
Maven — short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission — will spend at least a year collecting data. That’s a full Earth year, half a Martian one. Its orbit will dip as low as 78 miles above the Martian surface as its eight instruments make measurements. The craft is as long as a school bus, from solar wingtip to tip, and as hefty as an SUV.
Comet: Maven will have a rare brush with a comet next month.
The nucleus of newly discovered Comet Siding Spring will pass 82,000 miles from Mars on Oct. 19. The risk of comet dust damaging Maven is low, officials said, and the spacecraft should be able to observe Siding Spring as a science bonus.
University of Colorado: http://lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven/
Reported by MARCIA DUNN of the Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.
Here’s a video showing the final minutes before MAVEN’s arrival into Mars orbit. http://youtu.be/l3SryPMaRYwRead More