NASA Launches Robotic Mars Probe To Investigate Martian Atmosphere Mystery

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA launched its newest Mars probe toward the red planet Nov. 18 on a mission to determine how the martian atmosphere transformed the world into the desolate wasteland it is today.

The robotic spacecraft, called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe, launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here at 1:28 p.m. EST, beginning a 10-month journey to Mars.

“Liftoff of the Atlas 5 with MAVEN, looking for clues about the evolution of Mars through its atmosphere,” NASA launch commentator George Diller said as the rocket climbed into a cloudy Florida sky.

If all goes well, MAVEN should arrive at Mars Sept. 22, 2014, mission scientists have said.

The school-bus-size MAVEN spacecraft is heading to Mars to gather data about how the martian climate has changed over time. MAVEN will study the planet’s upper atmosphere, investigating the solar wind environment and other factors that could have caused the planet to lose its atmosphere to space.

Today, the atmosphere of Mars is only about 1 percent as thick as that of Earth; however, scientists think that has not always been the case. Based on data collected by other Mars orbiters and rovers on the surface, researchers think that Mars was once a wet and warm world with a thick atmosphere.

Before the  $671 million MAVEN probe makes it into orbit around Mars, the spacecraft might be able to observe a potentially dazzling comet passing through the inner solar system. Comet ISON, set to make its closest pass by the sun at the end of this month, could shine brightly from Earth, but MAVEN’s ultraviolet camera could catch sight of the comet as soon as Dec. 10. 

“Many of the same gases that are present in the Mars atmosphere are also present in comets,” Nick Schneider, lead scientist for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph instrument, said before launch. “What an ideal opportunity for us to try out our instrument  and do some good science along the way. … If we have time, we should get some really great observations in the ultraviolet of Comet ISON.”

NASA’s MAVEN is not the only probe on its way to Mars. On Nov. 5, the Indian Space Research Organisation launched its first Mars spacecraft, called Mangalyaan,  and it is scheduled to arrive at the red planet two days after MAVEN, on Sept. 24.

MAVEN’s team and the Mangalyaan team could eventually help one another with data sharing and observations from the two spacecraft, mission managers said.

“They [the Mangalyaan team] also have a couple of instruments that make relevant measurements to what we’re doing and vice versa,” Bruce Jakosky, principle investigator for MAVEN, said before launch. “We’ve agreed that after we’re both in orbit taking data, we’ll figure out what coordination we’ll need.”

Once in Mars orbit, the new probe will join NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, which are actively studying Mars from orbit now. NASA’s Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are studying Mars from the planet’s surface as well.

The MAVEN spacecraft also has the capability to act as a relay point between the rovers on Mars and Earth, which the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey can do as well.

NASA is also planning to send another lander to Mars in 2016. That spacecraft, called InSight, will investigate the way Mars and other rocky planets in the solar system — like Earth — may have formed. The lander will also look into the current seismic environment from the surface of the planet.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency and Russia plan to launch an orbiter to Mars in 2016, and follow that with a rover launch in 2018 as part of their ExoMars exploration program.

More robots around Mars

NASA’s MAVEN is not the only probe on its way to Mars. On Nov. 5, the Indian Space Research Organisation launched its first Mars spacecraft, called Mangalyaan,  and it is schedule to arrive at the red planet two days after MAVEN, on Sept. 24.

MAVEN’s team and the Mangalyaan team could eventually help one another with data sharing and observations from the two spacecraft, mission managers said.

“They [the Mangalyaan team] also have a couple of instruments that make relevant measurements to what we’re doing and vice versa,” Bruce Jakosky, principle investigator for MAVEN, said before launch. “We’ve agreed that after we’re both in orbit taking data, we’ll figure out what coordination we’ll need.”

Once in Mars orbit, the new probe will join NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, which are actively studying Mars from orbit now. NASA’s Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are studying Mars from the planet’s surface as well.

The MAVEN spacecraft also has the capability to act as a relay point between the rovers on Mars and Earth, which the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey can do as well.

NASA is also planning to send another lander to Mars in 2016. That spacecraft, called InSight, will investigate the way Mars and other rocky planets in the solar system — like Earth — may have formed. The lander will also look into the current seismic environment from the surface of the planet.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency and Russia plan to launch a new orbiter to Mars in 2016, and follow that with a rover launch in 2018 as part of their ExoMars exploration program.