Earlier this month, the government shutdown threatened to postpone the launch of NASA's Mars MAVEN spacecraft until 2016, at the expense of tens of millions of dollars to the Agency's already cash-strapped Planetary Science Division. Now, NASA says the orbiter is prepared to lift off on its originally scheduled launch date of November 18th.
Above: MAVEN spacecraft at a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver, CO // Via Lockheed Martin
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, or Maven for short, is due to lift off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18. Maven is designed to study the Red Planet's upper atmosphere in great detail, and mission scientists hope the probe's observations yield insights into how Mars shifted from a relatively warm, wet world in the ancient past to the cold and dry place we know today.
"The Maven mission is a significant step toward unraveling the planetary puzzle about Mars' past and present environments," NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said in a statement. "The knowledge we gain will build on past and current missions examining Mars and will help inform future missions to send humans to Mars."
The probe will take ten months to make the trip to the Red Planet, inserting itself into Mars' upper atmosphere in September 2014. There, it will search for clues about the planet's past, and how it quickly lost what is theorized to have been, not long ago, a much thicker atmosphere. (Notably, one thing MAVEN won't be looking for in Mars's atmosphere is methane.)
"We just had to leave that one off to stay focused and to stay within the available resources," said University of Colorado's Bruce Jakosky, principle investigator on the mission, at a press conference held yesterday.
Jakosky says the launch window for MAVEN is November 18 through December 7, though he notes that the spacecraft can technically lift off as late as December 15th, if it needs to.