NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter launches from Cape Canaveral today, and will be analyzing the atmosphere of the red planet to uncover how the planet has changed in the past.

MAVEN orbit full1 NASAs next Mars mission begins today!

Today, NASA will be launching MAVEN, it’s next big Mars mission. MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN orbiter, and as the name suggests, it will be making detailed research into the Martian atmosphere in an attempt to discover how Mars’ atmosphere and climate has changed over the past several billion years.

As far as orbital probes go, MAVEN is pretty big. Its main body is a cube with a 2.4 m side, but when counting the solar panels which help power it, its about 11.4 m wide. The cube and solar panels weigh in at a beefy 2,454 kg, more than a fully loaded Landrover Discovery.

The launch will be taking place at Cape Canaveral, atop an Atlas V rocket, and will be streaming live over the net, courtesy of NASA TV. Assuming no weather delays or other holdups, you’ll be able to catch the launch at 12.28pm locally, or 18.28 GMT. MAVEN is costing NASA $671 million and will take about nine months to get to the red planet.

MAVEN will be doing some risky maneuvering while surveying Mars. In order to get good readings from the atmosphere, it needs to get pretty close. Unfortunately, sustaining an orbit is impossible if you’re low enough to be skimming the atmosphere: the orbital speed would have to be very high, and the atmospheric drag would sink the probe rather quickly. The solution is an elliptical orbit: MAVEN will be sitting in an orbit which at it’s apogee (furthest point) takes it 6,000km from the surface, but then whips around, making a close call at the perigee (closest point) just 150 km from the surface. On five occasions, it’ll get even closer, sampling the atmosphere directly from just 124 km up.

MAVEN readies for launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida 1 1 NASAs next Mars mission begins today!

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN orbiter. Someone really wanted its initials to spell out MAVEN.

The reason the probe is dipping into the atmosphere with its eight onboard research instruments, is primarily to investigate a mystery in Mars’ past: A long time ago, it’s believed that Mars had a thick atmosphere and flowing water on its surface. Something happened; something turned Mars from a lush world with possibilities of life, to the bleak red rock we know today. NASA wants to get a grip on what happened, and whether solar winds are responsible for stripping away the planet’s atmosphere, as is commonly believed.

Despite the mission being primarily about the habitability of the red planet, MAVEN will not be looking for signs of life. It lacks an onboard methane detector (methane being a good sign of living organisms; 90% of the methane on earth comes from living creatures).  NASA scientists have expressed that their budget didn’t allow for such a device to be installed, which is a shame.

MAVEN has one more mission objective, and that is to serve as a communications platform between Earth and the rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, currently exploring Mars’ surface. NASA currently has two orbiters around Mars that communicate with the rovers and MAVEN will be augmenting their data and relaying it back to Earth. This feature kept the mission on track despite the US government shutdown last month. It was exempt from the furlough due to being classified as an emergency exception mission, mainly because of its importance as a communications link.

Source Space.com