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NASA's MAVEN blasts off on journey to Mars

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Nov 19, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—NASA has launched its latest mission to Mars to find more clues to determine to whether it might ever have been home to life.

The $671 million space probe, called MAVEN, soared into the Florida sky atop a 57.3 metres (188 ft) tall Atlas V rocket. Following its flawless launch from Cape Canaveral, it will spend ten months flying across space to reach Mars in September, 2014.

The probe will not land but will go into orbit around the Red Planet in a bid to discover what caused a catastrophic loss of atmosphere millions of years ago. After five weeks adjusting its orbit and testing its instruments, it will begin a scientific mission due to last one Earth-year.

Today Mars has a thin atmosphere made up almost entirely of carbon dioxide. But in the distant past the planet was much warmer and wetter, with a denser atmosphere and flowing water. Scientists want to know how much of the water seeped into the martian crust and how much disappeared into space.

MAVEN - it stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN - is the first space mission dedicated to exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars. Today was the first in a 20-day window of opportunity to launch the probe to the Red Planet.

After separating from the Atlas launch vehicle and Centaur second stage about 53 minutes after lift-off, MAVEN will extend its solar panels and orient itself so that they face the Sun.

The MAVEN space probe blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: NASA

MAVEN will travel in an elliptical orbit around Mars. At its closest, a height of 150 km (93 miles) above the surface, it will pass directly through the upper atmosphere to take samples of the gas and ion composition. At its furthest orbit it will be 6,000 km (3,728 miles) above the surface where it will carry out ultraviolet imaging of the planet. The altitude of MAVEN's orbit will be lowered to the top of the lower atmosphere - about 125 km (77 miles) - for five "deep dip" excursions.

The spacecraft carries three instrument packages. The Particles and Fields Package contains six instruments to collect information about the martian ionosphere and the solar wind. The Remote Sensing Package consists of the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer to determine characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere plus the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer which will measure the composition and isotopes of neutral ions.

A NASA video explains the aims of the MAVEN mission. Credit: NASA

Following the launch, Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator from the University of Colorado, said:  "After 10 years of developing the mission concept and then the hardware, it's incredibly exciting to see MAVEN on its way. But the real excitement will come in 10 months, when we go into orbit around Mars and can start getting the science results we planned."

Mars scientist Professor Andrew Nagy, of the Universe of Michigan, said: "Mars' upper atmosphere has been a big unknown. We need to figure out how it was lost millions of years ago. In order to know how it escaped, you first have to understand what's happening now. This mission is the first step."

NASA and Europe already have three active probes in orbit around Mars (Mars Odyssey, Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and another is on its way after launching from India earlier this month. Two robotic rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are also busy exploring the surface.