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NASA's MAVEN Hopes to Find What Happened on Mars

Update Date: Nov 17, 2013 12:16 PM EST

NASA is launching a new spacecraft called MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, in a bid to analyze the red planet's upper atmosphere for traces of life.

"We expect to learn how the modern Mars works, really in detail. To see its climate state, to understand how the atmosphere is lost to space - how Mars may have lost a magnetic field - to take that information and map it back in time, " said NASA's James Garvin, according to CNN.

Maven is a $671 million project and is slated to blast off Monday on a 10-month journey to the red planet. The Maven will orbit Mars and study the atmosphere to try to understand how the planet morphed from warm and wet to cold and dry.

Mars and Earth looked very similar once upon a time, according to NASA. Around 4 billion years ago, Mars was warm and had flowing water with, NASA believes, a thick atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Now, Mars looks like a barren skeleton compared to its hey day.

Previous Mars missions, such as Mars Curiosity rover, have been searching for evidence of water or life while the upper atmosphere has yet to be examined. Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN's primary researcher, said in a statement, "You can't hope, with a single spacecraft, to study all aspects and to learn everything there is to know about it. With MAVEN, we're exploring the single biggest unexplored piece of Mars so far." The Curiosity rover that landed on the Red Planet in 2012 was the last NASA mission launched to Mars.

According to NASA's statement, Jakosky's team will use the spacecraft's three instrument suites to try to meet three key objectives:

  • Determine the composition of upper Martian atmosphere
  •  Determine how fast Mars is losing what's left of its atmosphere
  •  Determine the history of the atmosphere

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