NASA Launches New MAVEN Spacecraft, Begins Journey to Mars

PHOTO: The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASAs MAVEN, spacecraft.
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Mars is becoming a hot travel destination this month. Less than two weeks after India's space agency, ISRO, launched a spacecraft to the red planet, NASA is ready to launch one of its own.

Maven, short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, is scheduled to launch at 1:28 p.m. ET this afternoon from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Paul Mahaffy, a NASA research scientist involved with both Maven and the Curiosity Rover, is optimistic that the new spacecraft's launch will go as planned.

"As far as I know, all the testing leading up to the point has been going swimmingly," he told ABC News. "My expectation is that if there is a launch delay, it'll have more to do with cloudiness and weather."

Maven will hover around the upper layers of Mars' atmosphere. While it won't be joining Curiosity for joyrides on the Martian surface, it will help out the rover in one of its research objectives: analyzing how Mars' atmosphere has changed in billions of years.

"We want to better understand how the atmosphere is escaping from Mars," Mahaffy said. "Then, we can extrapolate back in time and ask, 'Was Mars' climate substantially different than it is today?'"

But even though Maven is airborne while Curiosity treads along the ground, the two might be able to talk with one another. "Every time we send an orbiter, we put in telecommunications capability," Mahaffy said. "It can talk to the surface rover, whether we need it to or not."

Assuming that Maven launches today, it will start orbiting Mars Sept. 22, 2014. The spacecraft's orbit itself isn't circular but elliptical. Maven will be more than 3,700 miles away at its farthest point from Mars' surface, and 93 miles at its closest point. But Maven will also briefly dip down to 77 miles to the surface before returning to its orbit.

There are three orbiters hanging around Mars, NASA's Mars Odyssey and Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as the European Space Agency's Mars Express.

With the ISRO's Mars Orbiter en route, Maven will have plenty of company.

"With good fortune," Mahaffy said, "both spacecraft will be there next year."

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