The NASA spacecraft has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, the solar panels have been attached, and preparations are almost complete. After a few final tests, America's space agency will be set for the Nov. 18 launch of its next mission to the red planet.
Unlike NASA's other recent missions to Mars -- Opportunity and Curiosity -- the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft will orbit the planet instead of landing on its surface. The craft, which is tasked with analyzing the Martian atmosphere, is scheduled to reach Mars by September 2014.
"The MAVEN mission is a significant step toward unraveling the planetary puzzle about Mars' past and present environments," NASA's John Grunsfeld said in a written statement.
(Story continues below.)
NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, with solar panels extended, At Kennedy Space Center, Fla. on Sept. 27, 2013. (BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
By orbiting the planet at various latitudes, the spacecraft will explore Mars' upper atmosphere. NASA scientists expect the data to yield insights into how the Martian climate changed over time. The key question: Why did Mars lose its atmosphere?
Research published earlier this year indicated that most of Mars' carbon dioxide-based atmosphere may have escaped billions of years ago. But a recent meteorite study suggests that most of this carbon dioxide actually became trapped inside Martian rocks.
The launch is scheduled for 1:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 18 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. NASA plans to stream the launch live online, starting at 11 a.m. EST.
India intends to launch its own Mars orbiter in early November. If all goes according to plan, India's space agency may collaborate with NASA to explore the planet's atmosphere, Dr. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN's principal investigator and a professor of geology at the University of Colorado, told Universe Today.
Also on HuffPost:
Viking 1 launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on August 20, 1975, bound for Mars. A twin spacecraft, Viking 2, followed about three weeks later.
Each Viking spacecraft had two parts--an orbiter (top left) and lander (bottom left). After orbiting Mars and scouting for landing sites, the orbiter and lander would separate. Then the lander, protected from intense hear by an "aeroshell," would parachute to a safe landing (right).
In Mars Orbit
This image from June 29, 1976, shows a 30 mile wide swath of Chryse Planitia dominated by Belz Crater. It's known as a "rampant crater" because of the raised ridge around the inner layer of ejecta, material thrown out from a volcano or meteor impact.
Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976, seven years to the day after the first moon landing. Just minutes later, the lander took this photograph, the first picture ever taken in the surface of Mars.
Stars And Stripes
At left, the American flag is seen on the Viking 1 lander with the bicentennial symbol and Viking symbol below. At right, the six foot long rock known as "Big Joe" looms about 25 feet from the lander.
First Color Image
This is the first color image of the surface of Mars, snapped by Viking 1 the day after landing. The rocky wasteland, covered by iron oxide, at last provided an image to match the nickname "red planet."
In The Trenches
Viking 1's sampling arm created a number of deep trenches in the red planet's soil as part of surface composition and biology experiments.
Meanwhile, the Viking 1 Orbiter continued to snap intriguing photos of the surface, like this photo from the Cydonia region that showed what many thought looked like a human face.
The View From Orbit
A Viking 1 Orbiter image from September 1976 shows debris flows east of the Hellas region. The image is about 174 miles across and the debris flows extend up to 12 miles from the source.
A global mosaic from 102 Viking 1 Orbiter images from February 1980 shows a full Martian hemisphere. The view represents what you would see from a spacecraft about 1500 miles high.
A color mosaic from Viking 1's Orbiter shows the eastern Tharsis region. At left, from top to bottom, are the three 15 mile high volcanic shields, Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons.
A color mosaic from Viking 1 shows the massive Olympus Mons volcano. The largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons is about the same size (in area) as the state of Arizona, nearly 375 miles in diameter and 16 miles high. A crater 50 miles wide sits atop the summit.
A color mosaic from both Viking Orbiters shows a part of Valles Marineris known as Chandor Chasma. The walls and floor show evidence of erosion. The Viking 2 Lander ended communications on April 11, 1980, and the Viking 1 Lander on November 13, 1982, after transmitting over 1400 images of the two sites. The Viking 2 Orbiter was powered down on July 25, 1978 after 706 orbits, and the Viking 1 Orbiter was powered down on August 17, 1980, after over 1400 orbits.