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NASA's MAVEN Lifts off to Mars to Learn What Happened to Mars Atmosphere

Update Date: Nov 18, 2013 08:09 PM EST

NASA's latest rocket is MAVEN which soared into space from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Monday at 1:28 p.m. ET with the purpose of discovering exactly what happened to Mar's planetary evolution.

"What a Monday at the office," said Dave Mitchell, the mission's project manager from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "We built something to go to Mars, and we're now flying to Mars."

Mars' atmospheric pressure is less than 1 percent of Earth's, making it so thin that it can't keep liquid water from boiling away. (There is water ice stuck to the freezing poles of Mars.) However, scientists believe that the atmosphere used to be much thicker and warmer. 

"If we want to understand Mars as a system, we need to include the role of the upper atmosphere," the mission's principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in an interview before the launch. "We can no longer just look at the geology and understand it in isolation."

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.

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