NASA launches robotic explorer to Mars

First mission dedicated to studying upper atmosphere

Published On: Dec 24 2013 04:42:26 PM EST   Updated On: Nov 18 2013 06:05:05 PM EST
Maven Probe
CAP CANAVERAL, Fla. -

NASA's newest robotic explorer, Maven, is on its way to Mars.

The Maven spacecraft blasted off aboard an unmanned rocket from Cape Canaveral on Monday. It will take Maven 10 months to reach Mars following a journey of more than 440 million miles.

[PICS: Maven launche| VIDEO: Launch ]

This is NASA's 21st mission to Mars since the 1960s. But it's the first one devoted to studying the Martian upper atmosphere.

Scientists want to know why Mars went from being warm and wet during its first billion years, to the cold and dry place it is today. The early Martian atmosphere was thick enough to hold water and possibly support microbial life. But much of that atmosphere may have been lost to space, eroded by the sun. Maven may solve this case of mysterious climate change.

"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.

The robotic explorer lifted off by means of an United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, into space on Monday afternoon on a 10-month journey to the red planet. It will orbit Mars and study the atmosphere to try to understand how the planet morphed from warm and wet to cold and dry.

The solar-powered probe is about the length of school bus -- 37.5 feet (11.43 meters) long -- and will weigh about 5,410 pounds (2,454 kg) at launch. It will orbit between a low of about 93 miles (150 kilometers) above the surface to a high of about 3,728 miles (6,000 kilometers). It also will make five dives, flying as low as 77 miles (125 kilometers) in altitude.

"MAVEN will fill in a very big gap in our understanding of the planet by exploring the upper atmosphere and its influence on the Martian environment," principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, from the University of Colorado, said on his NASA webpage.