Mars Next Stop For NASA's MAVEN Mission After Successful Launch
November 18, 2013

Mars Next Stop For NASA’s MAVEN Mission After Successful Launch

[ Watch the Video: Mars MAVEN Mission Launch Successful ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A new spacecraft aimed at un-layering the history of Mars’ upper atmosphere launched from Cape Canaveral on Monday.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission will be joining up with other elite spacecraft orbiting around the Red Planet in September 2014, after traveling millions of miles across the solar system. MAVEN will be the first spacecraft to explore Mars’ upper atmosphere, not only helping to add new knowledge about the modern-day Red Planet, but also ancient Mars.

[ Watch the Video: MAVEN Mission Launch Video ]

The spacecraft will be exploring how Mars’ climate has changed over time due to the loss of atmospheric gases. Instruments aboard MAVEN will be able to pick up trace amounts of chemicals high above the Martian surface. These chemicals will allow scientists to test theories that the sun’s energy slowly eroded nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water from the Martian atmosphere, helping it to evolve into the dry, desolate planet it is today.

"Scientists believe the planet has evolved significantly over the past 4.5 billion years," David Mitchell, MAVEN's project manager for NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, said in a statement. "It had a thicker atmosphere and water flowing on the surface. It wasn't like Earth, but it was not like it is today."

Scientists say Mars used to contain a thick atmosphere and was warm enough to support oceans of liquid water. NASA released a video last week showing what they believe Mars could have looked like over 4 billion years ago. The video features a planet with large lakes, picturesque mountains and a thick atmosphere with blue sky and white clouds.

[ Watch video: The Evolution of Mars ]

MAVEN will help to uncover the secrets Mars holds by looking into this upper layer of atmosphere. The spacecraft will be measuring the escape rates of all the applicable processes and will be able to single out the most prominent. It will measure an accurate rate of loss to space and the controlling processes, which will help scientists paint the picture of Mars’ ancient atmosphere. A better understanding of this atmosphere will also help determine what the surface of the planet looked like back then.

The government shutdown earlier in October caused a few news outlets to speculate whether the MAVEN launch was even going to happen. However, a special rule relative to the Anti-Deficiency Act allowed MAVEN to meet requirements for an emergency exception. Bruce M. Jakosky, Principal Investigator for MAVEN at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told redOrbit back in October that although the exception for MAVEN was not done for science reasons, the science of MAVEN benefited from this rule.

Jakosky said that MAVEN meeting its November 18 launch date means the spacecraft would be observing a good time in the sun’s eleven-year solar cycle.

Scientists believe the sun may have played a role in helping gas escape the planet through the upper atmosphere, which is a region yet to be studied. Over the years, NASA has had 21 successful Mars flybys, orbiters, landers, and rovers; however none of these missions looked into the upper atmospheric workings of the Red Planet.

NASA is excited about the potential for discovery that MAVEN holds, and with the spacecraft now en route to the Red Planet, it is only a matter of time before those discoveries are made.

"The spacecraft is symbolic of the hundreds of people that have been a part of this since Day One, and all kinds of support that's needed to get us here," said Mitchell. "We're so close now. I mean, we're headed to Mars."

[ Watch the Video: MAVEN Rolls to the Launch Pad ]