Mission operators working from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are undergoing final adjustments for orbital insertion of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft, due to take place September 21. Achieving a stable orbit around the Red Planet would be the culmination of a 10-month voyage, during which the robotic explorer traveled 442 million miles (711 million km) after having ridden into space in November 2013 atop an Atlas V rocket.
MAVEN represents the first Mars orbiter designed for the sole purpose of observing how the Red Planet's upper atmosphere interacts with solar winds emanating from our Sun. The orbiter will make the necessary observations via an array of eight scientific instruments designed to collect a comprehensive set of measurements on the Martian atmosphere. It is hoped that these observations will shed light on the processes that stripped the planet of most of its atmosphere, whilst also granting an insight into the climate, the presence of liquid water and ultimately the habitability of ancient Mars.
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"Every time we send a spacecraft to Mars with new instruments that are making measurements we haven’t made before, we discover a new planet," stated Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "Previous spacecraft have made measurements and we've learnt a lot about the Martian atmosphere, but we haven't been able to put the whole end to end picture together."
Preparations for MAVEN's insertion into Mars orbit began soon after launch, with the team calibrating the probe's scientific payload and carrying out two course correction maneuvers. The journey itself presented a scientific opportunity for the team, using MAVEN's Fields and Particles package in order to collect data on interplanetary solar wind.
In the final stages of the approach to Mars, MAVEN's instruments were powered down in order to create the safest conditions for orbital insertion. The 33-minute burn required to bring the probe into a 236 mile (380 km)-high polar insertion orbit will be completely autonomous, using up roughly half of the probe's on-board fuel. The commands and contingencies used by MAVEN during this period had been uploaded long before, however there is a final window for a course alteration that closes six hours prior to the insertion maneuver.
Once orbital insertion is complete, MAVEN will realign itself into an elliptical orbit with an apoapsis of 3,900 miles (6,300 km), allowing the orbiter a comprehensive view of the Martian atmosphere from which to take its measurements.
Whilst MAVEN's primary science mission only has a duration of one Earth year, the probe is still expected to have fuel reserves at the end of this period, making it be possible for the team to obtain a mission extension. Furthermore, even when the orbiter's mission is declared complete, she will still have an operational function, relaying data packages and commands to and from the agency's rovers present on the Martian surface.
The video below outlines MARVEN's journey to Mars and her scientific goals upon arrival.