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U.S. spacecraft to reach Mars this weekend

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 — U.S. space agency NASA said Wednesday its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will enter orbit around the Red Planet this weekend, completing a 10-month space journey spanning 442 million miles (711 million kilometers).

"So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft," David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

"The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion."

The maneuver will begin with the brief firing of six small thruster engines to steady the spacecraft. Then the engines will ignite and burn for 33 minutes to slow the craft, allowing it to be pulled into an elliptical orbit with a period of 35 hours at approximately 9:50 p.m. EDT Sunday (0150 GMT Monday).

Following orbit insertion, MAVEN will begin a six-week commissioning phase that includes maneuvering the spacecraft into its final orbit and testing its instruments and science-mapping commands, NASA said.

Thereafter, MAVEN will begin its one-Earth-year primary mission to take measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars' upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind, it said.

"The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder. "These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life."

MAVEN was launched Nov. 18, 2013, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying three instrument packages. It is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars.

Two days after MAVEN's arrival, another spacecraft, India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), is also expected to enter the Red Planet's orbit. MOM was also launched last November.

MAVEN is the 10th orbiter the U.S. space agency sends to Mars, and three of them have failed. Currently, there are three other active spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet: Mars Odyssey launched in 2001, the European Space Agency's Mars Express launched in 2003 and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005.

NASA also has two active rovers currently studying Mars on the planet's surface: Opportunity launched in 2003 and Curiosity, the last NASA mission launched in 2011. (PNA/Xinhua)

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