NASA Chooses Atlas 5 Rocket to Launch New Mars Orbiter

NASA Launches New Spacecraft to Study the Sun
At the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Fla., NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), enclosed in the Atlas V payload fairing, is lifted off the floor. Workers are preparing to lift SDO onto a transporter in the airlock. SDO is the first mission in NASA's Living With a Star Program and is designed to study the causes of solar variability and its impacts on Earth. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA has selected an Atlas 5 rocketto launch an orbiter inNovember 2013 to study the ancient climate record of Mars, the agencyannouncedThursday.

The Mars Atmosphere and VolatileEvolution, or MAVEN,spacecraft will collect the most detailed data ever obtained on the RedPlanet's atmosphere. Scientists expect MAVEN will help unravelthe mystery of how Mars transitioned from a wetter, warmerplanet to thebarren landscape of today.

The MAVEN spacecraftwill blast offin November 2013 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from CapeCanaveral, Fla. The mission will use the Atlas 5's basic configurationwith nosolid rocket boosters, a single-engine Centaur upper stage and a4-meterpayload shroud.

The preliminary launch period, whenthe orbits of Earth andMars are properly aligned for an interplanetary journey, opens Nov. 18andcloses Dec. 7 in 2013. MAVEN will arrive at Mars in September 2014.

The total value of the launch serviceis $187 million. Thatcost includes the Atlas5rocket and additional contracts for payload processing,launch vehicleintegration, mission-unique ground support, and tracking and telemetryservices, according to a NASA press release.

The MAVEN agreement is the agency'sfirst launch deal underthe second NASA Launch Services contract announced in September. Thenew NLScontract covers launches of robotic NASA spacecraft for the next decade.

MAVEN's launch contract was held upafter the last NLS dealexpired June 30, according to a senior NASA official.

NLS contracts are multiple awardindefinite delivery,indefinite quantity pacts with launch companies covering potentialflightopportunities. NASA can order up to 70 missions in the new NLS contractfor amaximum value of $15 billion.

Managed by NASA's Goddard SpaceFlight Center, MAVENreceived management approval to proceed into full development during anOct. 4confirmation review. That decision point followed a successfulpreliminarydesign review this summer.

The MAVENspacecraft is a downsized version of the Mars ReconnaissanceOrbiter busbuilt by Lockheed Martin Corp. The mission's cost is $438 million, notcountingthe launch services contract unveiled Thursday.

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Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at and on Twitter.