Will MAVEN unravel a Martian mystery? (pictures)

Scientists hope the newest NASA probe will help explain why the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere.

Charles Cooper
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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.

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MAVEN in orbit

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.
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By the numbers

The MAVEN spacecraft's key stats:
Length: 37.5 feet (11.4 meters)
Spacecraft Dry Mass: 1,991 pounds
Wet (Fueled) Mass at Launch: 5,622 pounds
Power: 1135 watts (when Mars is farthest from the Sun)
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NASA preparation

Technicians and engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida prepare the MAVEN spacecraft.
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Atop an Atlas V

MAVEN is put into place atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket ahead of lift-off into space and onward to Mars.
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Finishing touches

Engineers and technicians put final touches on MAVEN earlier this month.
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Out the door

Pushing MAVEN out the door.
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Heading to the launch pad

A transporter moves the MAVEN spacecraft inside a payload fairing to the Vertical Integration Facility at Launch Complex 41.
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Upright and ready to go

MAVEN on the launch pad. The rocket lifted off on schedule Monday, November 18, at 1:28 p.m. ET.
10 of 17 NASA/Jim Grossmann

Deep Space Network tests

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.
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Spin test

An unbalanced spacecraft is an unhappy spacecraft. To make sure MAVEN is properly balanced, NASA ran the spacecraft through spin tests at its Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility.
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Solar arrays

Here, MAVEN's twin solar arrays get checked out.

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.

13 of 17 NASA/Jim Grossmann

Parabolic high-gain antenna

The parabolic high-gain antenna is how MAVEN will shoot data back to Earth during its one-year primary mission.

At its highest point, MAVEN will be 3,728 miles above the Martian surface, at which altitude it will focus on ultraviolet imaging of the entire planet.

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Imaging ultraviolet spectrograph

The instruments aboard MAVEN include the imaging ultraviolet spectrograph (IUVS), which NASA said will measure global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere via remote sensing.
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Mass spectrometer

MAVEN's neutral gas and ION mass spectrometer will meature the composition and isotopes of thermal neutrals and ions.
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Launch control

On Monday, November 18, 2013, this was the scene at launch control for the MAVEN spacecraft shortly before it lifted off en route to Mars.
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Lift off

At 1:28 p.m. ET, the Atlas V rocket carrying the MAVEN spacecraft lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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