BOULDER, Colo. (CBS/AP) - Mars, meet MAVEN.
This Sunday, after a 10-month and 442-million-mile journey, a NASA spacecraft built in Littleton and led by a team at the University of Colorado will pull close to Mars' orbit and start studying the Red Planet's atmosphere.
MAVEN -- short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution -- will provide scientists with insight into the planet's upper atmosphere and its interactions with the sun and solar winds. It will also help study how the loss of the planet's atmosphere over time affected climate, water and any habitability.
A major focus of the mission is the examination of water -- or Mars' relative lack of it -- any why the planet transformed from a wetter world with a rich atmosphere into the dry, cold and probably lifeless place it is today.
Dr. Bruce Jakosky of CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics is the principal investigator.
"Where did the water go? Where did the CO2 go from that early environment?" Jakosky said, according to the Associated Press.
But before MAVEN can begin sniffing the Martian skies, it first has to enter orbit safely. A number of thrusters and engines will fire to ensure MAVEN positions itself correctly. At that point, the craft will point its antenna back toward Earth and begin transmitting.
"Then, there will be a sigh of relief," said Carlos Gomez-Rosa, the MAVEN mission and science operations manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
The craft will eventually enter an elliptical orbit -- sometimes as close as 90 miles, sometimes as far away as 3,900 miles.
It is NASA's first atmospheric study of Mars. India launched a similar mission and its craft, called Mangalyaan, is expected to enter orbit two days later.
"MAVEN's orbit through the tenuous top of the atmosphere will be unique among Mars missions," Jakosky told NASA. "We'll get a new perspective on the planet and the history of the Martian climate, liquid water and planetary habitability by microbes."
MAVEN was built at the Lockheed Martin facility in Littleton. While CU is coordinating operations and providing scientific instruments, the University of California and Goddard will also take part.
MAVEN launched on Nov. 18, 2013, after roughly a decade of planning and development.
It will be the fourth spacecraft in orbit, in addition to two American rovers on the surface.
"For humans to go to Mars, it's not like 'Star Trek.' It's not like 'go where no man has gone before,' " NASA's director of planetary science, Jim Green, told reporters. "It's really the planetary scientists that are blazing the trail for us to understand everything about Mars that we need to for humans to be able to land safely on Mars and explore and journey around the planet."
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