MAVEN Arrives in Martian Orbit

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft
An artist’s depiction shows NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft flying above Mars. Credit: NASA Goddard

MAVEN has arrived at Mars. After ten months and a 422-million-mile (711 million kilometers) journey, the NASA spacecraft fired its thrusters and dropped into Martian orbit at 9:50 p.m. EDT on Sunday.

“NASA now has another healthy orbiter around Mars,” said Jim Crocker of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which managed the operation, in a statement. “MAVEN has performed exceptionally well since launch, and the flawless orbit insertion is testimony to how well the teams worked together.”

Scientists can now begin the six-week commissioning process to prepare the spacecraft for its one-Earth-year of primary scientific investigations. (See “Panorama of MAVEN at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.”)

To fall into Martian orbit while traveling through space at a speed of almost 14 miles (22 kilometers) per second, MAVEN activated six thrusters above Mars’s north pole to begin braking, a 33-minute process that burned more than half of its fuel. The rocket burn pulled the spacecraft into a large, elliptical orbit around the red planet.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying the atmosphere of Mars. Through sampling at various altitudes around the planet, scientists hope to better understand what might have happened to its historic atmosphere, which once harbored liquid water. (See “Top 5 Challenges in Store for Mars MAVEN Mission.”)

That atmosphere is now mostly gone, leaving behind a cold and barren planet with little more than rocky clues of what came before. Three suites of sensors on MAVEN, built by the University of Colorado at Boulder Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, the University of California at Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will investigate what remains of the Martian atmosphere, likely stripped away by solar winds billions of years ago.

“What we’re doing is measuring the composition of the atmosphere as a measure of latitude, longitude, time of day, and solar activities,” said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator from NASA Goddard for the spectrometer aboard MAVEN. “We’re trying to understand over billions of years how the atmosphere has been lost.” (Related: “MAVEN Launches for the Red Planet.”)

MAVEN’s current elliptical orbit takes 35 hours to circle the planet. Thruster burns over the next few weeks will lower it to just a 4.5-hour orbit, setting MAVEN up for future “deep-dip” campaigns that will pass within 77 miles (125 kilometers) of the planet’s surface. At other extremes, MAVEN will ascend some 3,870 miles (6,228 kilometers) above Mars, allowing a full view of the planet and its thin atmosphere.

“MAVEN’s orbit through the tenuous top of the atmosphere will be unique among Mars missions,” said Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for the mission at the University of Colorado. “We’ll get a new perspective on the planet and the history of the Martian climate, liquid water, and planetary habitability by microbes.”