Tonight, a spacecraft will enter orbit around Mars. Last November, I had an opportunity to watch as that probe launched atop a rocket and began that journey.
That should be emphasized: the spacecraft launched November 17th, 2013. And it will enter orbit around the planet Mars tonight, September 21st, 2014. 10 months after launch, the probe has traveled 442 million miles (711 million kilometers for my continental friends) to reach it’s destination.
The journey is an accomplishment in itself. NASA’s successes in the last decade have desensitized the general public to the challenges of spaceflight. The difficulty of launching a space vehicle cannot be exaggerated. Precision engineering, complex orbital mechanics, and years of research are necessary, and sometimes even that isn’t enough.
The MAVEN spacecraft is one of a series of space probes that have been launched to Mars over the last two decades as part of an ongoing, long-term exploration of the red planet. Each of the craft that have been sent is designed to investigate a particular feature of our nearest celestial neighbor. MAVEN, or “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” is specifically configured with sensors to study the Martian atmosphere.
Success isn’t for certain. In order to enter orbit around Mars, the spacecraft must fire its thrusters in order to orient the vehicle, then fire those engines continuously for 33 minutes to slow down from its en route speed. Meanwhile, controllers will uplink commands to the craft to open valves, heat essential components, and prepare the sensors to begin receiving data. MAVEN is set to enter orbit over the planet at an altitude of just 236 miles (380 KM) above the surface.
There have more than a few spacecraft set to explore Mars that never quite made it. Some have failed to enter orbit. Some have impacted the surface. And some never responded to signals from Earth and disappeared altogether. If MAVEN succeeds, it will have beaten the odds.
Interplanetary flight is an inherently dangerous way to travel. Minute errors are magnified and can have drastic results. The length of time it takes to travel millions of miles between worlds is a long time for mechanical and digital components to fail. Events that must happen may be measured in seconds, but their implications are often measured in the lost dreams of a lifetime.
Best wishes and Godspeed to the MAVEN teams tonight. Go MAVEN!
UPDATE: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014