If there’s any hope of ever visiting Mars, we have to start investigating the possibilities today. And that’s exactly what NASA is doing with its MAVEN spacecraft. The exploratory probe was launched yesterday, the culmination of 10 years of work and research, and it will tell us more about the red planet’s atmosphere.

More specifically, MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) is kitted out with sensors from three major research groups, which will help us determine where all of Mars’ water went. It’s been established that the surface of the planet was once graced by the life-giving substance, but most of it has since gone missing. Whether that’s through evaporation and lack of atmosphere is for MAVEN’s data to decide. Some water still remains frozen on Mars, though.

Unlike the more recent explorations of Mars, with the Curiosity Rover, MAVEN will orbit the planet elliptically and observe from afar. This orbit pattern has been chosen to help determine the effects the sun has on Mars, when orbiting some 6 200km away, as well as characterising Mars’ upper and inner atmospheres when the probe swoops down as low as 125km above the surface of the red rock.

We’ll have to wait a while before we hear anything, though. It’s a 10-month trip to Mars, and NASA only expects to have some data to share by this time next year. Though that’s a short amount of time given the possibility that the research could one day lead to humankind colonising the planet – or at least setting foot on it, if NASA’s 2030 mission gets realised.

 

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.