NASA to launch spacecraft to explore Martian atmosphere


U.S. space agency NASA said Monday its spacecraft that will examine the upper atmosphere of Mars "in unprecedented detail" is undergoing final preparations for a November launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN), on track for its 20-day launch window opening Nov. 18, will be the first dedicated to surveying the upper atmosphere of Mars in an effort to understand the role that loss of atmospheric gas to space played in changing the Martian climate through time.

"The MAVEN mission is a significant step toward unraveling the planetary puzzle about Mars' past and present environments," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.

"The knowledge we gain will build on past and current missions examining Mars and will help inform future missions to send humans to Mars," Grunsfeld said.

According to NASA, the 2.45-ton spacecraft will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket on a 10-month journey to Mars. After arriving at Mars in September 2014, MAVEN will settle into its elliptical science orbit.

Over the course of its one-Earth-year primary mission, MAVEN will observe all of Mars' latitudes. Altitudes will range from 150 km to more than 5,600 km. During the primary mission, MAVEN will execute five deep dip maneuvers, descending to an altitude of 120 kilometers, which marks the lower boundary of the planet's upper atmosphere.

The MAVEN spacecraft will carry three instrument suites. The Particles and Fields Package contains six instruments to characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of Mars. The Remote Sensing Package will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer will measure the composition of Mars' upper atmosphere.