Image 1 - NASA Missions To Invesitgate A Hostile Mars
November 19, 2011

NASA Missions To Invesitgate A Hostile Mars

NASA said on Friday that it is planning new missions to Mars to investigate how the planet turned hostile.

The space agency said it is planning two missions to the Red Planet, one that will roam the surface and another that will orbit the planet.

"The Red Planet's thin atmosphere does little to shield the ground against radiation from the Sun and space," Bill Steigerwald of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said in a NASA press release. "Harsh chemicals, like hydrogen peroxide, permeate the soil."

The space agency said that Mars was not always this way.  Scientists believe that billions of years ago, Mars was a planet that had the ability to sustain life.

"It appears that in its youth, Mars was a place that could have harbored life, with a thicker atmosphere warm enough for rain that formed lakes or even seas," Steigerwald said in the press release.

NASA will be launching its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission in November or December 2011, featuring its Curiosity rover.  The rover is the largest and most advanced rover ever sent to Mars.

The space agency is also planning the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2013.

MAVEN will orbit Mars and try to understand the planet's upper atmosphere.  NASA said the mission will help determine what caused the planet's atmosphere to become increasingly inhospitable for life.

"Both MAVEN and Curiosity/SAM will determine the history of the Martian climate and atmosphere using multiple approaches," MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado´s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics said in a press release. "Measurements of isotope ratios are an approach shared by both missions."

MAVEN is expected to reach the Red Planet in 2014, and by then Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument will have made similar measurements from Gale crater.

Scientists believe Gale crater may have formed over three billion years ago.  NASA hopes Curiosity will find enough minerals in the area and deliver them to SAM so the isotope ratios can be measured.

"SAM's inputs from the surface of past Martian history will help the MAVEN team work backwards to discover how the Martian atmosphere evolved," Joseph Grebowsky of NASA Goddard, MAVEN Project Scientist, said in a press release.

Curiosity will also carry a weather station to help the MAVEN team understand how changes in the upper atmosphere are related to changes at the surface.

"For example, if the rover detects a dust storm, it may have an effect higher up because of the winds and the gravity waves (the bobbing up and down of a parcel of air) it sets up," says Grebowsky.


Image 1: This artist's concept shows the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Image 2: This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Credit: NASA

Image 3: This oblique, southward-looking view of Gale crater shows the landing site and the mound of layered rocks that NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will investigate. The landing site is in the smooth area in front of the mound (marked by a yellow ellipse, which is 12.4 miles [20 kilometers] by 15.5 miles [25 kilometers]). Credit: NASA


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