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.