Maven Launch

Nov. 18, 2013 -- The dual Atlas V rocket engines roar to life on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41. Photo: NASA.  

On Nov. 18, NASA launched its newest robotic explorer, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, spacecraft, to Mars. Although it won't reach Mars until next September, MAVEN is performing "flawlessly" and represents a step toward the goal of sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. Further, MAVEN proved that such a spacecraft could come in on time, and on budget. For the builder of this spacecraft, Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), this is excellent news.

Here's what else you need to know.

Maven Circles Mars

This artist's concept shows the MAVEN spacecraft with the planet Mars in the background. Photo: NASA/Goddard.

Robots in space
According to NASA, MAVEN's mission is to study the upper atmosphere of Mars and measure current rates of atmospheric loss. With this information, scientists hope to understand how Mars may have lost its atmosphere and went from a warm, wet planet to a dry desert. 

"MAVEN joins our orbiters and rovers already at Mars to explore yet another facet of the Red Planet and prepare for human missions there by the 2030s," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "This mission is part of an integrated and strategic exploration program that is uncovering the mysteries of the solar system and enabling us to reach farther destinations." 

Lockheed stays on budget
The Nov. 18 launch is the culmination of 10 years of planning and hardware development between universities, the government, and the defense industry. The University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or CU/LASP, is the principal investigator, Goddard provided two of the science instruments for the mission, and Lockheed built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations.

Further, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is providing navigation support, "Deep Space Network support, and Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations," and The University of California at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory provided science instruments for the mission.

More importantly, David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said: "The team overcame every challenge it encountered and still kept MAVEN on schedule and on budget. The government, industry, and university partnership was determined and focused to return to Mars sooner, not later."

To boldly go where no one has gone before
When it comes to defense contractors, no one is bigger than Lockheed in terms of defense revenue -- in its third-quarter 2013 report, Lockheed's backlog was $78.7 billion. However, Lockheed doesn't exactly have a reputation for being on time or on budget when it comes to defense contracts: Two prime examples are the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship. Therefore, news that the MAVEN came in on time, and on budget, is welcome news for Lockheed -- especially since NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. Consequently, this is something investors should watch.

Fool contributor Katie Spence has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow her on Twitter: @TMFKSpence. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.