NASA’s Maven spacecraft will reach Mars following a 442 mile journey this weekend, and begin its orbit, as well as study around the planet.

This Sunday, the Maven spacecraft should safely reach Mars, and finally get the opportunity to begin orbiting and collecting information about the planets confusing history.

Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said Wednesday that this was a “critical event.”

Maven was never built with the intention of landing on the red planet, and doing any work at ground level. Rather Maven was designed to work from Mars’ upper atmosphere, and remain in orbit.

The goal of the operation is to try and identify what happened in the planet’s history for it to go from what scientists believe to be a warm, and wet world that could have even had microbial life during its first billion years, to being a cold, and baron wasteland that we know Mars to be today.

It’s a rather interesting proposition because the question ultimately becomes, “if there was water there – where did it go?”

The goal is to learn whether the precious gases that may have maintained Mars’ previous well-being were eroded away by the sun, and let loose by the eroding atmosphere.

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NASA launched Maven last November at the price tag of $671 million and was the first dedicated mission to studying the upper atmosphere of Mars. NASA also said that on Wednesday, just four days before being expected to make it to the planet, the planet looked like a baseball from 52 feet away – and would be quickly closing in as the weekend approached.

Maven is approximately the size of a typical SUV and weighs roughly 5,400 pounds. This will be the 5th NASA spacecraft on – or around Mars. Currently, two rovers are exploring the surface named Opportunity launched in 2003 and Curiosity launched in 2011, and two are circling Mars in orbit.

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After MAVEN’s arrival, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft is expected to reach the Red Planet. In the international community, space has become an increasingly important challenge that nations are once again competing to dominate. While funding was at one time cut to our space programs, the money is now flowing back, and confidence is returning to our space programs.

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