Today, a new attempt at learning the mysteries of early Martian history came a step closer to an answer. At 1:28 pm EST, NASA’s unmanned Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe launched from Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. It’s the first step in a mission to study the Martian upper atmosphere and learn more about the history of the planet’s climate.
According to NASA, today’s launch went without a hitch. The Atlas V rocket lifted off on schedule, with the RD-180 engine producing 860,200 lb of thrust. After first stage separation, the Centaur upper stage ignited 4 minutes and 18 seconds into the flight. Its first burn completed, the Centaur coasted until 2:09 pm EST before firing its RL-10 engine again to send MAVEN on its way to Mars.
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At 2:20 pm, NASA announced MAVEN’s separation from the Centaur and 20 minutes later, the spacecraft unfurled its solar panels as it began its 10-month journey.
The MAVEN spacecraft was delivered to Cape Canaveral on August 2 aboard a US Air Force C-17 cargo plane. Since then, it's undergone hardware installations, testing, and fueling. In October, the partial shutdown of the US federal government put the November launch date into jeopardy and almost caused a 26-month delay.
MAVEN’s one-year mission begins in September of next year, when it goes into Martian orbit. Its purpose is to study the history of the Martian atmosphere and the processes that affect it, such as the rate of atmosphere loss, how the upper atmosphere interacts with the solar wind, and the ratios of various isotopes. These will later be compared with similar measurements taken by the Curiosity rover on the Martian surface.
The video below shows the moment of separation from the Centaur upper stage.