On Sunday the MAVEN spacecraft entered Mars' orbit. NASA launched the MAVEN project in November of 2013 to study the atmospheric conditions of the red planet. MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) traveled 442 million miles, or 711 million kilometers to reach its destination. Now that it is in orbit with Mars it will begin to collect data on magnetic fields, solar winds, chemical make up, etc. of the atmosphere of our neighbor. The purpose of the mission is to learn not only the current atmospheric conditions of the planet, but also give us insight into the history of Mars' atmosphere, climate, availability of liquid water and potential for future habitability. This bird-like spacecraft will be in orbit at different levels of the atmosphere for a year-long mission. Visiting different levels of the atmosphere will allow a greater understanding of the whole picture. At its closest MAVEN will be only 93 miles (150 km) from the surface of Mars and at its highest will travel 3,728 miles (6,000 km) above the surface. Although I don't suspect that we earthlings will be headed to inhabit Mars any time soon, it is fascinating that we are able to use current technology to put the unwritten historical puzzle of our neighboring planet back together.
The next NASA launch will be in just a few days, on September 25th, when the Soyuz rocket will take the new crew up to the International Space Station. This will be expedition #41 for the ISS and includes NASA flight engineers Barry Wilmore and Reid Wiseman. During this mission the scientists will be studying how microgravity affects the growth of cells through experiments on plants and fish, and will study meteors entering Earth's atmosphere. NASA offers a treasure trove of teaching resources concerning the ISS at http://www.nasa.gov/education/teachstation. We don't always hear about it in the news, but there are new discoveries being made everyday in Astronomy, it's worth the time to check them out!
More Space Stuff to explore:
Mars and MAVEN activities for kids from NASA
Excellent video tour of the International Space Station:
NASA Kid's Club
NASA for Educators