MAVEN; Where Did Mars’ Atmosphere Go?

The MAVEN space probe launched today with the goal of unraveling the puzzle of how Mars lost most of it’s atmosphere and liquid water. It is the first space probe dedicated to purely studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, and will shed light on how the solar wind has contributed to atmospheric loss over time.

The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) space probe, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, will soon begin its journey through interplanetary space. The 170 million kilometre journey to The Red Planet, which began in Cape Canaveral today, will take 10 months to complete, with a planned arrival date of 22nd September 2014.

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The journey to the Red Planet will take 10 months to complete. MAVEN is due to arrive in September 2014.
Image credit: NASA/JPL

Once there, MAVEN will fall into a highly elliptical orbit around Mars. At its closest approach it will soar only 93 miles above above the martian surface, allowing it to pass through the gases in the upper atmosphere and taste them as it goes. At its highest point, MAVEN will be more than 3700 miles above the surface, enabling it to carry out imaging of the planet as a whole.

At five points during the year long mission, MAVEN will be lowered to an altitude of a mere 77 miles for a so called “deep dip”. This will allow a full profile of the upper atmosphere to be constructed, as well as information to be gathered on the nature of the top of the lower atmosphere.

MAVEN is the first space probe launched with the sole purpose of studying Mars’ upper atmosphere.

We know from previous missions (most notably Curiosity) that in ancient times, liquid water was present on the martian surface. We also know that Mars had a thick atmosphere (perhaps thicker than Earth’s atmosphere at one point), but how it lost the water and atmosphere remains a puzzle. MAVEN will aim to solve this problem by determining the history of Mars’ atmosphere, studying how atmospheric gases are lost to space and the role that the solar wind has played in this.

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New evidence that liquid water ran on the ancient martian surface, from Curiosity.
This image of what strongly resembles a conglomeratic river bank seen here on Earth (complete with rounded grains on the river bed) is one such piece of evidence.
How Mars lots all it’s liquid water and atmosphere however, remains a puzzle.
Image credit: NASA/APoD

Understanding the rate of atmospheric loss to space today will allow scientists to extrapolate back in time, enabling them to determine how much atmosphere has been lost throughout Mars’ history.

This mission will undoubtedly have an impact on our understanding of if and when Mars was ever a suitable place for life to arise, and reveal to what extent Mars resembled the early Earth in its long history.

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MAVEN, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, will carry instruments capable of determining current atmospheric loss.
Here it is being worked on at the Kennedy Space Centre.
Image Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Have a safe journey MAVEN!

For up-to-the-regular updates, follow MAVEN on Twitter @MAVEN2Mars.

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