Nasa Spacecraft Successfully Enters Mars Orbit
Maven – the name is short for Martian Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution – will also explore the planet’s interactions with the Sun.
Scientists believe Mars’ atmosphere could hold clues as to how the planet went from being warm and wet billions of years ago to cold and dry today.
Early Mars could have harboured microbial life, researchers believe.
“This is such an incredible night,” said John Grunsfeld, Nasa’s chief for science missions.
Nasa launched Maven last November from Cape Canaveral, the 10th US mission sent to orbit the Red Planet.
Three earlier ones failed, and until the official word came of success late Sunday night, the entire team was on edge.
“I don’t have any fingernails any more, but we’ve made it,” said Colleen Hartman, deputy director for science at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s incredible.”
India’s first interplanetary probe, Mangalyaan, will reach Mars in two days and also aim for orbit.
Maven will spend at least a year collecting data from Mars and its orbit will dip as low as 78 miles above the Martian surface as its eight instruments make measurements.
All these robotic scouts are paving the way for the human explorers that Nasa hopes to send in the 2030s.
Maven will have a rare brush with a comet next month.
The nucleus of newly discovered Comet Siding Spring will pass 82,000 miles (131,960 km) from Mars on October 19.
The risk of comet dust damaging Maven is low, officials said, and the spacecraft should be able to observe Siding Spring as a scientific bonus.