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November 16, 2013

NASA’s Mars flyer will explore atmosphere

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA hopes its newest Mars spacecraft lives up to its know-it-all name.

The robotic explorer called Maven is due to blast off Monday on a 10-month journey to the red planet. There, it will orbit Mars and study the atmosphere to try to understand how the planet morphed from warm and wet to cold and dry.

“A maven is a trusted expert,” noted NASA’s space science chief, John Grunsfeld. Maven will help scientists “build a story of the Mars atmosphere and help future human explorers who journey to Mars.”

The $671 million mission is NASA’s 21st crack at Earth’s most enticing neighbor, coming on the heels of the Curiosity rover, still rolling strong a year after its grand Martian arrival.

When Maven reaches Mars next September, it will join three functioning spacecraft, two U.S. and one European. An Indian orbiter also will be arriving about the same time. Maven will be the 10th orbiter to be launched to Mars by NASA; three have failed, testimony to the difficulty of the task.

“No other planet, other than perhaps Earth, has held the attention of people around the world than Mars,” Grunsfeld said.

Early Mars had an atmosphere thick enough to hold water and moist clouds, said chief investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder. Indeed, water flowed once upon a time on Mars, and microbial life might have existed.

“But somehow that atmosphere changed over time to the cold, dry environment that we see today,” Jakosky said. “What we don’t know is what the driver of that change has been.”

Maven — short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, with a capital N in EvolutioN — is the first spacecraft devoted entirely to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere. India’s orbiter will also study the atmosphere but go a step further, seeking out methane, a possible indicator of life.

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