NASA's latest spacecraft sent to study the Martian atmosphere is already collecting data.
NASA scientists announced this afternoon that its Maven (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft is securely in orbit around Mars, and all of its instruments are working well.
The orbiter, which entered Mars' orbit on Sept. 21, has already sent back images of what NASA scientists are calling a "storm" of energetic solar particles around Mars, giving researchers unprecedented ultraviolet images of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon coronas surrounding the Red Planet,
"After this afternoon, all of its instruments will be on much of the time," said Bruce Jakosky, the Maven principal investigator. "The aim of our activities right now is to get to the start of science mapping and that will be in early to mid November."
Today, Maven is in the midst of a six-week commissioning period, where all of its instruments are turned on and tested. It's also the time when the spacecraft goes through a series of maneuvers to put it into the specific orbit needed to do its scientific work.
NASA officials have carried out four of the seven maneuvers that will get Maven into its ultimate orbit. So far, Jakosky said, there have been "no problems whatsoever" in Maven's commissioning.
The spacecraft's mission is to understand the current structure and dynamics of Mars' upper atmosphere. Scientists are looking to find out what caused the planet's atmosphere to thin and how that loss influenced the climate history of the planet. They're also looking for clues as to why Mars didn't hold onto its water and become a lush planet like Earth.
Scientists excitedly reported that as they've been testing Maven's instruments it already has begun collecting data and sending back better images than they had expected.
"They look gratifyingly like the models we put together for the last year," said Justin Deighan, the Maven team member in charge of the orbiter's remote sensing. "But the quality of the data was better than we were expecting. The ability to see the high-altitude oxygen -- we were hoping for it, but we couldn't have expected to get that good of an image."
NASA also has two other orbiters -- the Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter -- studying Mars, in addiiton to the two robotic rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, at work on the Martian surface.