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Environment

A New Spacecraft Lifts Off To Mars

Space: Mission weathers government shutdown to launch on time, explore Red Planet’s upper atmosphere

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
November 18, 2013

MARS BOUND
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Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The MAVEN spacecraft lifts off from Cape Canaveral on a mission to study Mars’s upper atmosphere.
20131118np1-liftoff.jpg
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The MAVEN spacecraft lifts off from Cape Canaveral on a mission to study Mars’s upper atmosphere.

A new mission to Mars launched successfully from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 18—but just barely. Mission control for NASA’s Mars Atmosphere & Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) got a pass to keep working during the 16-day government shutdown. The team was able to ensure that the craft—primarily designed to orbit the red planet and study its atmospheric chemistry—stayed on track for a critical launch window.

Weighing 5,400 lb, the MAVEN craft’s suite of instruments includes spectrometers and particle analyzers that will collect data from Mars’s upper atmosphere for one year. MAVEN will not land on Mars. Information sent back by the craft will help scientists understand why a planet that some 3 billion years ago was characterized by liquid water and a thick atmosphere is now mostly dry.

The MAVEN mission hopes to understand the loss of atmosphere and liquid water by looking at the interactions of volatile compounds such as water and carbon dioxide with solar activity.

If the mission had been delayed, the next launch window wouldn’t have opened until 2016, also damping the mission’s crucial secondary role as a communications relay for the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. That possible consequence of the government shutdown convinced political leaders that the work on the mission needed to stay on track during the closure.

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