Scientists hope the newest NASA probe will help explain why the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere.
MAVEN to Mars: Start the countdown
NASA launched its next Mars probe on Monday when the MAVEN spacecraft (PDF) took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a 10-month journey to the Red Planet. MAVEN is an acronym for "Mars atmosphere and volatile evolution." Among other questions scientists hope the new mission can answer is how Mars lost most of its atmosphere, a historical quirk that has prevented any chance for habitable life to flourish on the planet. At one time, Mars is believed to have had an atmosphere warm enough to support oceans of water.
Editors' note: This slideshow was originally published November 16 at 11:03 p.m. PT. It has been updated with additional photos and details from the launch on November 18.
MAVEN is expected to enter Mars orbit around September 2014. The solar-powered craft is equipped with a powerful antenna that can be pointed to Earth for twice-weekly communications sessions. In this image, an artist's concept shows the MAVEN spacecraft in orbit above Mars.
In September, engineers at the Kennedy Space Center's MIL-71 facility were busy running compatibility tests to ensure that MAVEN will be able to relay data back through the Deep Space Network (DSN) interfaces.
After the spacecraft slips into Mars orbit about 10 months from now, there will be a 5-week wait (the commissioning phase) as MAVEN checks out its instruments and its science mapping sequences. The orbit will be elliptical, and at the closest point, MAVEN will be about 93 miles above the surface -- meaning, NASA said, that it will pass through the upper atmosphere on each orbit and can sample the gas and ion composition directly.