Skip to main content

NASA launches new spacecraft to orbit Mars

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: MAVEN logs more than 14,000 miles on its first day, NASA says
  • The unmanned probe is en route to Mars to study the red planet's atmosphere
  • The mission launched Monday afternoon; it's scheduled to arrive in September 2014

(CNN) -- You may have heard it before: Billions of years ago, Mars probably looked more like Earth does now, with clouds and oceans and a much thicker atmosphere. It may even have had some type of microbes. But now it's a barren, frozen desert.

So what happened? Where did the air and water go?

That's what the spacecraft NASA launched Monday is being dispatched to find out. It's called MAVEN -- short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution -- and it's the first mission dedicated to studying the red planet's upper atmosphere.

Is this ancient Mars? An artist shows how Mars might have looked billions of years ago. A new NASA spacecraft, called MAVEN, will be the first mission devoted to exploring and understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. Scientists hope it will solve the mystery of the red planet's missing air and water. Is this ancient Mars? An artist shows how Mars might have looked billions of years ago. A new NASA spacecraft, called MAVEN, will be the first mission devoted to exploring and understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. Scientists hope it will solve the mystery of the red planet's missing air and water.
Mars MAVEN spacecraft
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Photos: Mars MAVEN mission Photos: Mars MAVEN mission
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recently encountered this iron meteorite, which NASA named "Lebanon." This find is similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers. The Curiosity rover set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images. NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recently encountered this iron meteorite, which NASA named "Lebanon." This find is similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers. The Curiosity rover set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images.
Mars rover Curiosity
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Mars rover Curiosity Photos: Mars rover Curiosity

"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.

MAVEN lifted off shortly before 1:30 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, starting a 10-month trip. By late afternoon, it was more than 14,000 miles from Earth en route to a September 22, 2014 rendezvous with Mars.

The solar-powered probe is about the length of school bus -- 37.5 feet (11.43 meters) -- and will weigh about 5,410 pounds (2,454 kilograms) at launch.

What killed Mars? New spacecraft will find out

"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, says on his NASA webpage.

He says he's "excited that we're providing one step along the path of answering questions about whether life ever existed on Mars."

Jakosky's team will use the spacecraft's three instrument suites in hopes of determining three things about Mars:

• The composition of its upper atmosphere

• How fast it's losing what's left of its atmosphere

• The history of the atmosphere

MAVEN won't make a cool, daring landing like the Mars Curiosity Rover, which has been roaming Mars for more than a year now. Instead, 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.

NASA says the mission will cost $671 million.

Interactive: Mars exploration from Viking to MAVEN

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Space
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Seems NASA's fascination with the moon is in the past. It's focused on something far more menacing: incoming asteroids
updated 11:56 PM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Scientists looking for signs of life in the universe -- as well as another planet like our own -- are a lot closer to their goal than people realize.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Back in July 1969, I stood on the talcum-like lunar dust just a few feet from our home away from home, Eagle, the lunar module that transported Neil Armstrong and me to the bleak, crater-pocked moonscape.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
solar flare july 2014
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
The full moons of this summer -- July 12, August 10 and September 9 -- are supermoons, as NASA calls them.
updated 11:51 AM EDT, Sun June 29, 2014
If you think you saw a flying saucer over Hawaii, you might not be crazy -- except what you saw didn't come from outer space, though that may be its ultimate destination.
updated 9:47 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
The U.S. space shuttle program retired in 2011, leaving American astronauts to hitchhike into orbit. But after three long years, NASA's successor is almost ready to make an entrance.
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
When I first poked my head inside Virgin Galactic's newest spaceship, I felt a little like I was getting a front-row seat to space history.
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The sun is putting on a fireworks show again.
updated 7:02 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
A year is a very long time on Mars -- 687 days. NASA's Curiosity rover can attest that it's enough time for some unexpected life changes.
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
It's hard to describe billions of years of cosmic history. But scientists have used a code to create a model of how the universe as we know it today might have evolved.
updated 2:00 PM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
At least one corner of the solar system may be serving up an ice-and-water sandwich, with the possibility of life on the rocks.
updated 11:03 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Planetary nebula Abell 33 has taken on romantic proportions.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
You can't see it happening on Earth, but space itself is stretching. Ever since the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago, the universe has been getting bigger.
updated 4:59 PM EDT, Wed March 26, 2014
Scientists have added another celestial body to the short list of objects in our solar system that have rings around them.
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Astronomers have discovered a dwarf planet that's even farther away than Pluto.
updated 7:59 AM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
Our galactic neighborhood just got a lot bigger. NASA announced the discovery of 715 new planets.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Scientists have made a breakthrough in understanding how our world as we know it came to be.
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue February 25, 2014
From a sheep ranch in Western Australia comes the oldest slice of Earth we know.
updated 2:02 PM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
Cassiopeia A was a star more than eight times the mass of our sun before it exploded in the cataclysmic, fiery death astronomers call a supernova.
updated 5:07 PM EST, Mon February 10, 2014
Researchers have found clues that water could be flowing in the present, at least during warm seasons.
updated 11:02 AM EST, Sat February 15, 2014
The "jelly doughnut" rock that seemed to appear out of nowhere on Mars last month did not fall out of an extraterrestrial pastry box.
updated 10:56 PM EST, Thu February 6, 2014
It's a dot in the sky.
updated 2:44 AM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
Reports of Jade Rabbit's demise may have been premature.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
It's rare for astronomers to spot a planet in a star cluster. That's partly why a cluster called Messier 67 is so special: We now know that it has three planets orbiting stars.
ADVERTISEMENT