Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

MAVEN Now Successfully Orbiting Mars. What's Next?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

MAVEN Now Successfully Orbiting Mars. What's Next?

Article excerpt

NASA's latest mission to Mars - an orbiter designed to help scientists reconstruct the history of the planet's atmosphere and the effect its changes had on habitability - has moved into its initial orbit after a 10-month journey that covered 442 million miles.

The craft, known by its acronym MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), began to orbit Mars at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday. It is the first of two orbiters slated to arrive at the red planet this week.

The second belongs to interplanetary newcomer India, which launched its Mangalyaan spacecraft on Nov. 5, 2013. The craft passed a test Monday after controllers briefly fired its main engine in preparation for the attempt on Wednesday to slow the craft so Mars' gravity can capture it.

If successful, Mangalyaan will join the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters and the landers Curiosity and Opportunity. They're trying to piece together the story of Mars and its shift from a relatively warm, wet, habitable planet with a thick atmosphere early in its history to the chilled desert that humans observe today.

The quest to understand Mars "is really a quest of humanity," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate, during a briefing following MAVEN's insertion into orbit.

MAVEN's arrival came about with the ignition of its six main engines for a "burn" that lasted 34 minutes and 26 seconds, slightly longer than MAVEN's game plan called for.

Still, when it was over, MAVEN project manager David Mitchell, based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., was among many happy campers associated with the mission.

"You get one shot with Mars orbit insertion, and MAVEN nailed it tonight," he said. Based on initial data coming back from MAVEN, the craft's orbit is very close to the 35-hour orbit that planners had hoped to achieve, with the craft's closest approach to Mars bringing it within about 236 miles of the planet's surface.

Beginning in a day or two, controllers will gradually shrink MAVEN's orbit until it takes about 4-1/2 hours and brings the craft within about 93 miles of the surface. …

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