A satellite aiming to reach Mars orbit to study how the planet’s thin atmosphere is disappearing was launched on Monday by Nasa.
The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft, blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 1:28pm local time (6:28pm GMT) atop an Atlas 5 rocket.
The 2,454 kg satellite separated from the Atlas V Centaur rocket’s second stage about 53 minutes after launch and deployed its solar arrays about seven minutes later. MAVEN’s journey to Mars will take ten months and is expected to reach the Red Planet’s orbit next September.
Unlike Curiosity, the probe won’t attempt to land and will stay orbiting the planet, sampling its thin atmosphere to understand how Mars lost all the water scientists believe once had been covering its surface.
"MAVEN joins our orbiters and rovers already at Mars to explore yet another facet of the Red Planet and prepare for human missions there by the 2030s," said Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden. "This mission is part of an integrated and strategic exploration program that is uncovering the mysteries of the solar system and enabling us to reach farther destinations."
In the first four weeks of its journey, MAVEN’s eight scientific instruments will be powered on, to make sure they work as required.
Upon reaching Mars in September, the spacecraft will execute an orbit insertion manoeuvre, firing its six thrusters that will allow it to be captured by the gravity of Mars and guide it to correct orbit.
"After 10 years of developing the mission concept and then the hardware, it's incredibly exciting to see MAVEN on its way," said Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator at the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (CU/LASP). "But the real excitement will come in 10 months, when we go into orbit around Mars and can start getting the science results we planned."