Recently, there’s been a whole slew of information coming from Mars — a meteorite with organic compounds, findings from Curiosity that increase the likelihood that life once existed on the Red Planet, and now methane emissions that could suggest that life currently exists on Mars. All of that is a lot to wrap one’s mind around, so it’s easy to forget about NASA’s other Mars program — MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN). MAVEN’s goal is to try and obtain information that will help scientists figure out where Mars’ atmosphere went. Recently, NASA released some preliminary information gathered by MAVEN that starts to detail the process by which Mars lost its atmosphere, which likely involves solar wind.
Scientists know that Mars has changed a lot over the years. It used to be warm and wet, and quite possibly harbor at least microbial life, but now it’s cold, dry, and barren. On Monday, NASA launched the Mars MAVEN, which will spend about a year studying Mars’ atmosphere to gather data important in understanding how and why it has changed so drastically. One of the reasons we’re so captivated by the idea of ancient Mars is that it’s a lot easier to imagine humans living there.
And while we can’t turn back time, we do know that atmospheres can change, either via natural processes or, quite possibly, man-induced ones such as terraforming. In order to catalyze Mars dreams, whether they’re past, present, or future, and in order to get people engaged and excited about MAVEN’s mission, NASA created an animation of how scientists believe Mars may have looked about 4 billion years ago when it had a thick atmosphere.
If the weather cooperates, tomorrow will mark another step in our long journey toward the Red Planet, with the launch of MAVEN. Mars has been an object of fascination for thousands of years. Our good friend Copernicus was the first person to postulate that Mars was a planet like Earth, which was one of the details in the heliocentric Solar System theory he published in 1543. From then on, astronomers have been studying the planet, and in 1965, spacecraft and probes joined the party. Mars has raised a multitude of questions, such as whether water exists there; whether little green aliens or some other life form exists or existed there; whether its moons are captured asteroids; and whether the planet could support human life. Key to that last question is Mars’s atmosphere, which is exactly what MAVEN will study.
Mars has changed drastically over time. It used to be warm and wet, likely supporting microbes that may have begun life on Earth, but now it’s a cold and barren desert. How did that happen? Mars used to have a thick, cloud-producing atmosphere, but over time, the atmosphere has all but vanished. Where did it go? Carl Sagan believes it’s trapped in the soil of Mars and that it might even be possible to release the atmosphere back into the sky, which would be one aspect of terraforming. But we don’t know, which is why we’re sending MAVEN to find out.
If you saw the 55th anniversary infographic of NASA’s planned missions through 2030, you will have already heard about MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft.
Scheduled for launch in November 2013, MAVEN was transported in a metal shipping container from Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week to undergo final preparations. I wonder what the shipping charges were?