NASA’s MAVEN mission lifts off on its way to Mars (live launch video)


Mars is the planet right next door, and we’ve shot a dozen probes and rovers its way in the last few decades. However, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the Red Planet, and the MAVEN probe could help solve some of those mysteries. MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (okay, NASA), and its goal is to study the history of Martian climate and hopefully figure out why Mars is a dry little husk instead of a second Earth. MAVEN is about to lift off and begin the long trip to Mars, and you can watch it live.

Analysis from the Curiosity rover and others has shown water to still be present in the Martian soil, but it is believed that Mars once had much more water that may have evaporated and was lost to space along with other atmospheric components. A planet losing its atmosphere like that is something we ought to know the mechanics of — we happen to rely quite heavily on our own planet’s atmosphere.

The MAVEN probe weighs in at roughly three tons and will be powered by a large solar panel array. When it is fully deployed in orbit of Mars by September of 2014, MAVEN’s panels will be the size of a school bus. MAVEN has a suite of instruments that will scan the planet from orbit, feeding data back to NASA over the course of years as it whips around in an elongated elliptical orbit. The probe will be looking for particles escaping the planet’s surface and attempt to determine what effect the sun’s activity has on them. The exaggerated orbit will allow MAVEN to differentiate between the sun’s effects and the state of the upper atmosphere while at different distances from the planet. It wil even make several very low-altitude passes over Mars — as little as 78 miles from the surface.

Earth’s atmosphere is largely protected by the planet’s strong magnetic field. Scientists suspect that Mars’ own magnetic field weakened as its core cooled, leading to the atmosphere being stripped away by the torrent of particles and radiation known as the solar wind. Prior to this, it may have been much more like Earth.

MAVEN Launch

This research has the potential to tell us a lot about how habitable planets form and exist in the universe. We only have the one example to go on right now, but understanding why Mars missed the mark could be very important. Hopes that humanity will one day visit (and maybe even colonize) the Red Planet could also be boosted by a better understanding of the forces that dried out Mars in the first place.

Update: If you missed the live launch above, NASA should replay it for a bit.

Now read: Cassini captures Earth – and all of humanity – from a billion miles away

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