NASA preps for November launch of Maven spacecraft for Mars

Space agency plans to study Mars atmosphere, climate history and habitability

Just as NASA marked the one-year anniversary of its rover Curiosity's arrival on the Martian surface, the space agency took a big step this week in its effort to launch a spacecraft to Mars this fall.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatiles Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has been moved into a clean room at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and now is going through final preparations for a scheduled November launch.

The spacecraft is undergoing detailed testing and fueling prior to being moved to its launch pad, NASA said.

The mission, which will focus on studying Mars' atmosphere, climate history and potential habitability, has a 20-day launch period that opens Nov. 18.

Maven's work is expected to help scientists reconstruct the Red Planet's past climate.

"Maven is not going to detect life," Bruce Jakosky, a planetary scientist and Maven's principal investigator, said in a written statement. "But it will help us understand the climate history, which is the history of its habitability."

Recent discoveries of evidence of ancient water flows on Mars, along with the discovery of chemicals needed to sustain life as we know it in Martian soil, have scientists saying that Mars used to be a blue planet - much like Earth. Today, however, Mars is a cold, dusty planet.

One question to be answered is what happened to change Mars and if the same thing could happen on Earth.

NASA noted that its scientists hope Maven will give them clues to help them understand how the loss of Mars' atmospheric gas may have played a part in changing the planet's climate.

"We're excited and proud to ship the spacecraft right on schedule," said David Mitchell, Maven project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "But more critical milestones lie ahead before we accomplish our mission of collecting science data from Mars. I firmly believe the team is up to the task. Now, we begin the final push to launch."

The Maven spacecraft was transported to the Kennedy Space Center from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., on Friday, Aug. 2, aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane. According to NASA, Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colo. designed and built the spacecraft and is responsible for testing, launch processing, and mission operations.

"It's always a mix of excitement and stress when you ship a spacecraft down to the launch site," said Guy Beutelschies, Maven program manager at Lockheed Martin. "It's similar to moving your children to college after high school graduation. You're proud of the hard work to get to this point, but you know they still need some help before they're ready to be on their own."

Maven
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatiles Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will study the planet's atmosphere, climate history and potential habitability. (Image: NASA)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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