Nasa’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, aboard an Atlas V 401 rocket, is waiting at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 to blast off into space. The launch is scheduled for today at 8:28 pm GMT+2 (1:28 pm EST). You can watch live coverage of the launch on Nasa TV.
The MAVEN spacecraft will search for clues into the thinning of Mars’ atmosphere and the disappearance of surface water over time. Scientists theorise the Sun may have had a role in the escape of gas from the planet’s upper atmosphere – a region that hasn’t yet been studied. MAVEN is the first spacecraft to explore the Martian upper atmosphere.
The new Mars-bound spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet on 22 September 2014 and will slip into an elliptical orbit ranging from a low of 150 kilometres above the surface to a high of 6 000 kilometres. It also will take five “deep dips” during the course of the mission, flying as low as 150 kilometres in altitude and providing a cross-section of the top of the atmosphere.
MAVEN is a 2,4-metre cube weighing about 2 449 kilograms at launch. With its twin pairs of gull-wing-shaped solar panels extended, it stretches 11 metres from wingtip to wingtip.
The spacecraft is outfitted with a trio of instrument suites. The Particles and Fields Package, built by the University of California at Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, contains six individual instruments that characterise the solar wind and ionosphere of the planet. The Remote Sensing Package, built by LASP, will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, built by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, will measure the composition and isotopes of neutrals and ions.
Assembled by Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colorado, MAVEN was blasted with sound waves, shaken on a vibration table, even put through a thermal vacuum test using liquid nitrogen to simulate the cold of space and hot lamps to mimic the Sun – all to ensure it was ready for the extremes of liftoff and spaceflight.
Watch MAVEN roll to the launch pad in the above video…