NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has successfully completed a maneuver designed to place the robotic explorer in Mars orbit. The achievement is the crowning moment in a 10-month journey through deep space, representing the culmination of millions of dollars and over a decade of planning and hard work by NASA mission operators.
"NASA has a long history of scientific discovery at Mars and the safe arrival of MAVEN opens another chapter," stated astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld. "Maven will complement NASA’s other Martian robotic explorers – and those of our partners around the globe – to answer some fundamental questions about Mars and life beyond Earth."
The orbital insertion maneuver centered around a 34-minute, 26-second burn (11 seconds more than originally planned, but all things considered still impressively accurate) that successfully decreased MAVEN's velocity enough for the probe to be caught in Mars' gravitational pull. The spacecraft will now begin a six-week commissioning process during which time NASA mission operators will calibrate and test the orbiter's scientific payload, finally maneuvering the probe into her operational orbit.
Once the period of testing is complete, the orbiter can begin its one-year primary scientific mission of helping us to understand the composition and evolution of the Martian atmosphere in relation to the Sun's solar wind, with the hope of shedding light on just how the Red Planet came to lose the majority of its atmosphere.
During the primary mission phase, MAVEN's perapsis (the lowest point in the spacecraft's orbit) will be lowered from 93 miles (150 km) to roughly 77 miles (125 km). This will allow the probe's impressive array of scientific instruments to characterize the depleted upper atmosphere of the Mars in a far more comprehensive manner than if the probe remained in a static orbit.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden puts a more practical edge on the data to be collected by MAVEN, stating that the readings may well be put to use to "better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s."