Despite last-minute worries about the weather, the Mars orbiter Maven successfully launched Monday from the Kennedy Space Center, which adjoins the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Merritt Island in Florida. NASA launched the unmanned spacecraft atop an Atlas V rocket at 1:28 EST in a perfect send-off Monday amid a round of applause from Mission Control. Fifty-eight minutes after launch, the craft separated from the upper-stage booster that set it on its course to Mars.
Maven’s primary objective is to study the Martian atmosphere in order to better understand what caused it to drift away into space, leaving the Red Planet a cold and barren wasteland. Evidence gathered by NASA’s Mars rovers shows the ancient planet once had a warmer climate and liquid water that flowed across the Martian landscape–an environment suited for the existence of microbial life.
The eight scientific instruments on board will be taking measurements of the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, where the losses occur, as well as analyzing ultraviolet radiation and high-energy particles from the sun. Scientists believe the sun’s influence is somehow responsible for the losses. Once Maven accumulates a year or so’s worth of data, scientists hope to replay the disappearance of the atmosphere by working backward in time.
In early December, Maven will make a course-correction maneuver after which the mission team will activate the scientific instruments on board to confirm they survived the launch. Then the instruments will be shut down for the 10-month journey to Mars.
But before those instruments are turned off, NASA scientists plan to make observations of the sun and want to use Maven’s Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph to take a look at comet ISON. The comet is currently hurtling toward the sun and on Nov. 28 will pass within 740,000 miles of the its fiery surface. Then the comet will continue its cosmic journey through the solar system and vanish from Maven’s field of view.
“Many of the same gases that are present in Mars’ atmosphere are also present in comets,” Nick Schneider, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Maven science team member, said in a briefing on Sunday. He added that comet ISON would provide “a good opportunity to try out our instruments and do some good science on the way.”