(UPI) -- NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, known as MAVEN, is due to travel to Mars in three weeks.
Maven is set take off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18. The spacecraft was designed to study the Red Planet's upper atmosphere. Scientists expect its findings will shed light on how Mars shifted from being a relatively warm, wet world to a cold and dry one.
"The Maven mission is a significant step toward unraveling the planetary puzzle about Mars' past and present environments," NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said in a statement. "The knowledge we gain will build on past and current missions examining Mars and will help inform future missions to send humans to Mars."
Maven's $671 million mission will begin atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Following a 10-month cruise, the probe will arrive at Mars in September 2014. The spacecraft will then spend at least one Earth year using three different instruments to study the planet's air.
Maven will not, however, be able to search for methane, the gas most closely associated with the search for life.
"We just had to leave that one off to stay focused and to stay within the available resources," said Maven principal investigator Bruce Jakosky.
Maven was also briefly threatened by the recent government shutdown, when the space agency had to furlough 97 percent of its workforce Oct. 1 through Oct. 16, but the time-sensitive mission was granted an emergency exception Oct. 3.
Maven's launch window runs from Nov. 18 through Dec. 7, but according to Jakosky, liftoff could be as late as Dec. 15. Beyond that, NASA would have to wait at least two more years for the necessary the alignment of Earth and Mars.