|Artist’s concept of NASA’s Maven spacecraft approaching Mars. NASA/GSFC|
This weekend, NASA’s Maven spacecraft will reach the red planet following a 10-month journey spanning 442 million miles. If all goes well, the robotic explorer will hit the brakes and slip into Martian orbit Sunday night.
“I’m all on pins and needles. This is a critical event,” NASA’s director of planetary science, Jim Green, said Wednesday.
Maven is not designed to land; rather, it will study Mars’ upper atmosphere from orbit.
Scientists want to learn how Mars went from a warm, wet world that may have harbored microbial life during its first billion years, to the cold, barren place of today. Maven should help explain the atmospheric changes that led to this radical climate change.
“Where did the water go? Where did the CO2 go from that early environment?” said chief investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.
“We measure these things today even though the processes we’re interested in operated billions of years ago,” he said.
NASA launched Maven from Cape Canaveral last November on the $671 million mission, the first dedicated to studying the Martian upper atmosphere.
As of Wednesday, the spacecraft was less than 750,000 miles from its destination; Maven’s view of the red planet would be roughly equivalent to a baseball about 52 feet away.