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NASA - MAVEN - Investigating the Martian Atmosphere

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft 'nails it' as it pulls into Mars orbit

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, September 22, 2014, 10:54 AM - Recent discoveries on Mars have revealed that the planet has gone through some drastic changes during its history, changing from an environment that was very similar to Earth in the distant past to the dry, barren environment we see today. Part of the reason for this change is that Mars has lost most of its atmosphere, but we still aren't sure why that happened. MAVEN's team at NASA hopes to solve this mystery.

Launched on November 18, 2013, MAVEN - NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission - has been flying a 'transfer orbit' between Earth and Mars over the past 10 months, using Earth's higher velocity to propel itself to catch up with the Red Planet. Shortly after 10 p.m. EDT, on September 21, the spacecraft completed an engine burn that lasted just over half-hour, which slowed it down by over 4,400 kilometres per hour. This deceleration was enough to let Mars' gravity 'grab hold' of the spacecraft and fling it around the planet into a preliminary orbit. As discussed in the video below, from NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, the spacecraft will take about a week or so before it tightens up its orbit so that it can prepare for its year-long science mission.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: "MAVEN's findings will reveal how Mars changed from a warm, wet planet early in its history, to the cold, dry world we see today..."

While not as 'tricky' as the arrivals of rovers like Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity - since they had to contend with the entry into Mars' atmosphere and deal with risky landing maneuvers - it is always a challenge to coordinate these operations from a distance of 224 million kilometres (the current distance to Mars). The biggest problem involved with the process is based in one of the fundamental properties of our universe - the speed of light. Travelling at nearly 300,000 km/s, the radio signals sent by MAVEN take roughly 12.5 minutes to arrive at Earth, and it takes the same amount of time to send commands to the spacecraft. This means that giving commands to the spacecraft in real-time just isn't possible. Thus, the engineers had to carefully program MAVEN to perform the entire operation on its own, and then wait for the signal from the spacecraft that it had finished its journey.

NASA broadcast the orbital insertion operations, live, on the web, starting at 9:30 pm EDT on Sunday, and held a post-orbit insertion press conference shortly thereafter to discuss the results.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: "MAVEN nailed it! It was right on the money!"

NEXT PAGE: MAVEN's science mission and fateful encounter with Comet Siding Spring

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