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NASA MAVEN spacecraft joins fleet at Mars

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Sep 22, 2014, 12:25 UTC

Sen—NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft wrapped up at 10-month, 442-million mile journey Sunday with a 34-minute breaking maneuver to sling itself into orbit around Mars. 

“I don’t have any fingernails anymore, but we made it,” Colleen Hartman, NASA deputy director for science at Goddard Space Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said during a NASA Television broadcast of MAVEN’s arrival.

MAVEN—a nickname for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution—will spend at least one year assessing how charged particles in the solar wind strip away gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere.

Scientists will use the data to create computer models and extrapolate atmospheric conditions back in time. 

Although the planet is cold and dry today, its surface speaks of an alternative past that included rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. For liquid surface water to exist, Mars’ atmosphere would have had to be far denser than it is today. 

Scientists suspect Mars lost 99 percent of its atmosphere millions of years ago as the planet cooled and its magnetic field decayed, allowing charged particles in the solar wind to strip away water and other atmospheric gases. 

The MAVEN science team plans to assess how the loss of water and other volatiles to space has impacted the Martian atmosphere over time and also to inventory gases and conditions of the atmosphere today. 

The information is expected to provide new insights into the period of time when Mars may have been suitable to support life.