BROWNSVILLE, Texas — A NASA spacecraft entered orbit around Mars as planned late Sept. 21, the first of two spacecraft scheduled to arrive at the planet in a three-day period.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft fired its main engine for 34 minutes, slowing the spacecraft down enough to be captured into orbit by the gravity of Mars. Confirmation of the successful burn and orbit insertion came at approximately 10:30 p.m. EDT Sept. 21.

“You get one shot with Mars orbit insertion, and MAVEN nailed it tonight,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager, at a press conference shortly after the spacecraft entered orbit. “Things look really great with the orbit at this point.” He said the spacecraft will perform several additional engine burns, starting in several days, to move the spacecraft into its final orbit.

MAVEN <a title=”NASA Launches Robotic Mars Probe To Investigate Martian Atmosphere Mystery” href=””>launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket</a> on Nov. 18, 2013.

The spacecraft carries a suite of instruments designed to study the planet’s upper atmosphere to better understand how the planet’s atmosphere and climate have changed over time.

MAVEN, selected as part of NASA’s Mars Scout program of smaller Mars missions in 2008, is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, although principal investigator Bruce Jakosky is based at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California Berkeley provided several of MAVEN’s instruments.

Jakosky said Sept. 21 that routine science operations by MAVEN will begin in November, after the spacecraft’s instruments are commissioned. MAVEN will pause that commissioning effort for several days in mid-October to observe Comet Siding Spring as it passes close to Mars.

MAVEN was the first of two spacecraft arriving at Mars within three days. India’s first Mars spacecraft, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also launched last November, arrived at Mars on Sept. 24 and also went into orbit. The Indian Space Research Organisation reported Sept. 22 that MOM successfully tested the engine it will use to enter Mars orbit.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...