What happened to the water on Mars? How did the Red Planet’s atmosphere become so thin over time? NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe is scheduled to launch tomorrow on a mission to find out.
The unmanned spacecraft aims to orbit Mars from a high altitude, studying its atmosphere for clues on how the sun may have influenced gas to escape from the possibly life-bearing planet billions of years ago.
The probe is different from past NASA missions because it focuses not on the dry surface but on the mysteries of the never before studied upper atmosphere.
“There’s a puzzle piece, I’ll say, that’s been missing with what’s happening in that upper atmosphere,” MAVEN mission project manager David Mitchell said.
“That is really what we are going after,” Mitchell said.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland posted on its Web site an artist’s video rendition of what Mars might have looked like in a long-gone era when its atmosphere was thick enough to support surface water.
The green lakes and white clouds it depicts offer a stark contrast to the barren desert planet of today, coated in reddish-pink grit and dry except for traces of briny subsurface streams.
Jim Green, director of the planetary science division at NASA headquarters said MAVEN, which cost US$671 million, is to reveal clues about what happened to make Mars’ atmosphere too cold and thin to support water.
The planet that neighbors Earth “underwent a major climate change in its past,” Green said.
“MAVEN will tell us why Mars went through the such dramatic atmospheric changes over the years,” Green added.
Much of its year long mission will be spent circling the planet at a distance of 6,000km above the surface, but it will execute five deep dips to a height of just 125km.
The square spacecraft weighs 2,453kg and is to launch aboard an Atlas V 401 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
If launch goes ahead as planned tomorrow, the 2.5m cube with wing-like solar panels will arrive in Martian orbit on Sept. 22 next year after a journey of 10 months.
That would be an arrival two days earlier than India’s Mars probe, launched on Nov. 5. MAVEN’s science mission would begin in November next year.
The science goals of the two do not overlap much, Mitchell said.
The Indian probe will be searching for methane which could prove the existence of some ancient life form, while the US probe seeks answers about the planet’s climate change.