It took nearly a year to get there, but now NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft is orbiting the red planet.
The spacecraft successfully entered the planet's orbit on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014 at 10: 24 p.m. EDT. It is the first spacecraft loaded with scientific instruments that will study Mars' upper atmosphere.
"As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars' upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet," says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s."
MAVEN will join probes and crafts from all over the world in studying Mars, including the U.S. Curiosity and Opportunity rovers and the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as the European Space Agency's Mars Express. Another probe, from India, will join the Mars robotic scientific team next week.
MAVEN'S next mission will last six weeks. During this time, the spacecraft will test its onboard scientific instrumentation, while ground control positions the spacecraft into the orbit from where its primary mission takes place. Once there, MAVEN will spend a year taking measurements of Mars' upper atmosphere, including its composition, information about the gases present there, and how the solar wind affects it.
During MAVEN's main mission, the spacecraft will "dip" lower into Mars' atmosphere, from 93 miles above the planet's surface to just 77 miles above it. This maneuver gives scientists even better measurements about the layers that make up the planet's atmosphere.
MAVEN launched from Cape Canaveral in November, 2013. It has three on-board scientific packages. The Particles and Fields Package will measure the effects of solar wind on Mars' atmosphere. The Remote Sensing Package will study details about that atmosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer will measure the particles present in the atmosphere.
"Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system," the agency writes. "Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us learn more about our own planet's history and future."
Scientists hope that MAVEN, along with similar missions, will find evidence of past life on Mars, which would answer the long-asked question, "Is there life beyond Earth?"