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MAVEN affixed to Atlas 5 rocket for Nov. 18 launch

Posted: November 8, 2013

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, the centerpiece of a $671 million mission to study the atmosphere of Mars, reached its penultimate stop before liftoff when technicians transported the delicate probe to the Atlas 5 rocket's seaside launch complex Friday.

Encapsulated inside its payload fairing, MAVEN is hoisted inside the Vertical Integration Facility for attachment to the Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
The milestone move marks one of the final visible steps ahead of the mission's launch, which is on schedule for Nov. 18 at 1:28 p.m. EST (1828 GMT).

Technicians began transferring the 2.8-ton spacecraft from its clean room at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at 12:33 a.m. EST aboard a specialized transporter. The road trip across Kennedy Space Center took about two-and-a-half hours, and NASA says MAVEN arrived at the launch pad at 2:59 a.m. EST.

MAVEN was already enshrouded inside the nose cone of its Atlas 5 rocket. The cone-shaped fairing shields the payload from contaminants and airflow during ground preparations and the first phase of launch.

United Launch Alliance hooked up a crane to the top of MAVEN's payload fairing and hoisted the spacecraft inside the Atlas 5's Vertical Integration Facility, and technicians completed the initial attachment of MAVEN to its launch vehicle at 7:45 a.m. EST, according to NASA.

Mechanical and electrical connections were expected to be completed later Friday, followed by a spacecraft power-up Saturday to check MAVEN's health after the trip across Kennedy Space Center.

An integrated systems test is on tap for Monday to ensure MAVEN and the 189-foot-tall Atlas 5 are working together, according to NASA.

Friday's movement to the launch pad was delayed a day to repair a faulty purge system inside the Atlas 5's integration building.

The Atlas 5 has finished its standalone testing after ULA workers propped up the rocket's first stage booster and Centaur stage inside the 29-story VIF in early October. The ULA launch team put the Atlas 5 through a full countdown rehearsal Oct. 29, including loading of the rocket with kerosene, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants.

Credit: ULA
The Atlas 5 assigned to MAVEN's launch features no solid rocket boosters, a four-meter payload fairing and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. This is known as the "401" configuration in the Atlas 5 nomenclature.

The two-stage rocket will be rolled out to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral's Complex 41 at 10 a.m. EST on Nov. 16, making the 1,800-foot trip from its assembly building in about a half-hour under the power of specially-designed "trackmobiles" to push the launcher and its mobile platform to the pad.

The day before launch, Nov. 17, is a day off for launch crews before the countdown begins at dawn Nov. 18, leading to the opening of a two-hour launch window at 1:28 p.m. EST.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission will separate from the Atlas 5's Centaur upper stage about 52 minutes after liftoff, deploy its electricity-generating solar panels and begin its interplanetary cruise to Mars.

Arrival in orbit around the red planet is set for Sept. 22, 2014, if the launch occurs Nov. 18.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.