Video: NASA's MAVEN takes off to orbit Red Planet

Mars is a cold and dusty place with no known life.

But scientists believe that the planet was once more like Earth, with a warm climate that supported oceans and lakes.

The NASA spacecraft MAVEN will explore the Mars’ atmosphere in a quest to find out how the planet could have experienced such a drastic change in climate.

MAVEN, or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, launched into space on Monday from Cape Canaveral, Fla. at 10:28 a.m. PST from an Atlas V rocket. The spacecraft is expected to reach Mars orbit in September 2014. Scientists from several institutes, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, are working on the $671-million mission.

JPL is also providing navigation support and will monitor the spacecraft’s path over the next 10 months.

During the initial one-year mission, MAVEN will orbit the Red Planet, gathering information about Mars’ upper atmosphere and hunting for clues about the planet’s past climate.

Mars’ atmospheric pressure is less than 1% of Earth’s, but scientists believe the atmosphere was thicker billions of years ago. A thicker atmosphere could have supported a warm environment with water, a key ingredient for life on our planet.

“It looks like [Mars] may have lost 90% to 95% of its atmosphere, maybe more,” said Rich Zurek, a scientist at JPL and a co-investigator on MAVEN. “We’re trying to find out when the change occurred.”

MAVEN is equipped with a set of scientific instruments, including sensors that will analyze solar wind and high-energy solar particles. Scientists believe that solar wind may have stripped Mars of its atmosphere.

The probe will conduct an elliptical orbit around Mars, exploring the atmosphere from 93 miles to 3,728 miles above the surface of the planet. Five times during the mission, MAVEN will take “deep dips” 77 miles above the surface.

MAVEN will chart Mars’ upper atmosphere and the area around the whole planet, measuring the rate of atmospheric loss and the sun’s effects on the planet’s atmosphere.

The partial government shutdown in October nearly threatened MAVEN from launching this year, but its role as a backup communication link for the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, as well as future NASA robots, saved it.

If aging Mars orbiters Odyssey and Reconnaissance stop working in the years ahead, MAVEN can use a radio provided by JPL to relay information between the Martian probes and Earth. Officials decided to spare the mission as delaying the launch may have jeopardized NASA’s ability to gather data from the rovers.

At a press conference on Monday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, lead members of the mission expressed excitement and relief following the successful launch of MAVEN.

“After 10 years of doing this, I don’t have the words to describe what I’m feeling,” Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for MAVEN and a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “This day has been picture perfect from beginning to end.”


Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.


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