An American spacecraft reached Mars late Sunday after a 10-month-long journey. It traveled a total of 711-million kilometers from Earth to the ‘Red Planet'.
American scientists are calling the device MAVEN. That is an acronym -- a name made from a series of letters or parts of a group of words. MAVEN's real name is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft.
MAVEN: NASA's Next Mission to Mars
National Atmospheric and Space Administration officials say MAVEN will study the planet's upper atmosphere. They say it is the first spacecraft designed to do so. NASA scientists say MAVEN will measure the rates at which gases leave the Martian atmosphere. They hope the information it gathers will help them learn how the climate of Mars has changed over time.
Scientists began working on the project 11 years ago. Bruce Jakosky is a leader of the MAVEN mission. He says scientists want to know what caused major changes to the climate during the past few billion years.
"So we're looking at what happens at the top of the atmosphere, how the processes involving the sun and the solar wind affect the gas at the top of the atmosphere and strip it away to space. So in essence, that's our goal, to answer the question where did the water go, where did the carbon dioxide go?"
NASA: Targeting Mars
NASA scientists plan to deploy MAVEN in an orbit about 150 kilometers above the red planet. Five times during the mission, the spacecraft will move closer to the Martian surface. MAVEN will "dip" down to 125 kilometers above the surface. During these "deep-dip campaigns," MAVEN will travel in an area where the upper and lower atmospheres meet. This will give scientists information about the differences between the two atmospheres.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says the spacecraft will try to find out if human beings can survive on Mars. The space agency is working on plans to send humans to the planet in the 2030s.
NASA will move MAVEN into its planned orbit around the planet over the next six weeks. Between now and then, scientists will be testing its instruments.
The MAVEN mission shows the increasing importance of partnerships between NASA and universities and private companies. It was launched in November from NASA's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The spacecraft is carrying many different instruments. Some were made at the University of California at Berkeley. Others come from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. That is where Mr. Jakosky works.
The aerospace company Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The project has a total cost of $671 million.
Three other spacecraft are now orbiting the red planet. Two of them are American. The third is European. A spacecraft from India is to enter an orbit around Mars on Wednesday.
I'm Caty Weaver.