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Mars from On HighNASA's MAVEN mission — short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN orbiter — is due to launch toward the Red Planet atop an Atlas 5 rocket at 1:28 p.m. EST (1828 GMT) on Monday (Nov. 18) from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
MAVEN will make detailed measurements of the Red Planet's atmosphere from orbit, helping scientists understand why and how Mars' climate has changed so dramatically over the last few billion years.
Here are 10 things to keep in mind about the MAVEN probe and its $671 million mission.
FIRST STOP: MAVEN is Big
MAVEN Is BigSlide 2 of 21
MAVEN Is BigThe solar-powered MAVEN spacecraft is pretty hefty. While the probe's body is a cube measuring 8 feet (2.4 meters) on a side, MAVEN spans a total of 37.5 feet (11.4 m) with its solar panels deployed, making the craft as long as a school bus.
And MAVEN weighs 5,410 pounds (2,454 kilograms) — as much as a fully loaded SUV. [How NASA's MAVEN Mars Orbiter Works (Infographic)]
NEXT: Long Road to MarsSlide 3 of 21
Long Cruise to MarsSlide 4 of 21
Long Cruise to MarsMonday's liftoff marks the beginning of a long cruise through space for MAVEN. If the probe gets off the pad as scheduled, it will reach Mars on Sept. 22, 2014.
This 10-month journey is significantly longer than the trek endured by the Mars rover Curiosity, the last Red Planet explorer NASA launched. Curiosity reached Mars on Aug. 5, 2012, about 8.5 months after blasting off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 26, 2011. [NASA's MAVEN Mission to Mars (Photos)]
NEXT: Elliptical OrbitSlide 5 of 21
Elliptical OrbitSlide 6 of 21
Elliptical OrbitWhen MAVEN gets to Mars, the probe will insert into an elliptical orbit around the planet that brings it as close as 93 miles (150 kilometers) and reaches as far away as 3,728 miles (6,000 km).
In addition, MAVEN will make a handful of "deep dips" during the course of its mission, coming within 77 miles (124 km) of the Martian surface on five separate occasions. MAVEN will thus be able to sample the upper atmosphere of Mars directly and get a wider view of the entire planet from afar — a powerful combination, NASA officials say.
NEXT: A Martian DetectiveSlide 7 of 21
Solving a Martian MysterySlide 8 of 21