Late last night fans of NASA, Mars, and science in general were cheering as the bus-sized MAVEN satellite completed an all-important rocket burn that dropped it squarely into orbit around the red planet. MAVEN, short for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, has been traveling through space for the past 10 months. It took 11 years of work to get it to this point.
The tricky maneuver, known as an “orbital insertion,” will mark the beginning of the satellite's planned year-long mission to study Mars' atmosphere. Here's a video from NASA describing last night's crucial burn, and the orbital maneuvers still to come before MAVEN is ready to do some science:
Once MAVEN is in its final planned orbit, it will go about its main mission: trying to study Mars' thin atmosphere. MAVEN is the first orbiter specifically designed to study Mars' atmosphere, says the Associated Press.
Mars' atmosphere is a scientific curiosity for one simple reason: it's basically gone. Roughly 4 billion years ago Mars has a thick atmosphere, but over the intervening period as much as 95 percent of the gas has been blown away into space.
Without an atmosphere, Mars has become a cold, dead world. By measuring how Mars' atmosphere is changing now, says Alan Boyle for NBC, scientists hope to track these changes back in time and figure out how the planet dried up.
MAVEN joins a small fleet of probes and rovers currently working the red planet, which includes NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Odyssey orbiter and the European Space Agency's Mars Express. On Wednesday India's Mangalyaan orbiter is set to drop into orbit around Mars, the first spacecraft from an Asian nation to visit the red planet.