The goal: to help scientists understand why the Martian atmosphere all but disappeared.
The thin Martian atmosphere, as seen by the Viking 1 orbiter.
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft, scheduled to launch at 1:28 Eastern time on Monday, will be the first devoted exclusively to studying the Martian upper atmosphere. If MAVEN’s Atlas V rocket doesn’t get off the ground before 3:28 today (follow the countdown here or on NASA Television) the launch window extends until December 7, after which Mars will be too far out of alignment with Earth. The spacecraft is slated to arrive in orbit around the Red Planet on September 22.
MAVEN is the second and last of NASA’s (relatively) low-cost Mars Scout missions (the program has since been discontinued). It’s designed to take measurements from a highly elliptical Mars orbit over a period of one Earth year, with five “deep dips” down to about 125 kilometers altitude to sample the upper atmosphere.
The goal is to better understand how the Martian atmosphere and climate have changed over time. River valleys, shorelines, and evidence of rain on early Mars suggest that the planet was once very different than it is today. Many scientists ...