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Watch live: MAVEN, NASA’s next mission to Mars, on schedule for today’s launch

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This artist's conception shows MAVEN orbiting above Mars as it investigates the planet's atmosphere.

MAVEN — the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN orbiter — blasted off this afternoon on NASA's latest mission to investigate the mysteries of the Red Planet.

The launch went off without a hitch, as planned, at just before 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time today, from Cape Canaveral in Florida, with the entire event live streamed via the web. NASA's Kennedy Spaceflight Center released this great video of the launch:

MAVEN's flight path will carry the satellite to its destination in just under 10 months, and it's scheduled to slip into orbit around Mars sometime around September 22nd, 2014. After that, it will take over relaying messages and instructions for the Curiosity rover, and it will spend at least a year studying Mars' atmosphere, in an attempt to figure out exactly how the planet lost much of the thick atmosphere it had at one time. It will also watch how the planet's upper atmosphere interacts with the solar wind, since Mars doesn't have a protective magnetic field like Earth has, and it will examine how gases are lost from the atmosphere into space.

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Amazingly, MAVEN's schedule will put it into orbit around Mars almost exactly one month before Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) flies by the planet, coming within about 100,000 km of the surface (less than a third of the distance between Earth and the moon). Astronomers ruled out an impact between the comet and Mars, but C/2013 A1 will pass so close that it will likely result in a meteor storm in Mars' upper atmosphere. With MAVEN arriving ahead of time, that could provide NASA with an excellent chance to study what should be a spectacular event.

(Image courtesy: NASA/Goddard)

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