A New Martian Machine

NASA launches a new spacecraft to study Mars's atmosphere

Nov 20, 2013 | By Cameron Keady with reporting by Jeffrey Kluger
GETTY IMAGES

Mars is roughly half the size of Earth, with a diameter of about 4,222 miles.

Mars was the first planet that humans attempted to reach. Since the 1960s, scientists have been working to learn about the Red Planet’s past. We now know that Mars was once a warm, wet place with great oceans and deep rivers. We also know that about 3.7 billion years ago, all that water disappeared when the planet lost its air. But why did the atmosphere on Mars change so dramatically?

This week, NASA launched the MAVEN spacecraft in hopes of answering that very question. MAVEN will study the remains of Mars’s air and help scientists figure out what became of the rest of it.

MAVEN lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 18, 2013.
JOHN RAOUX—AP
MAVEN lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 18, 2013.

Marvelous MAVEN

The spacecraft launched on Monday, November 18, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The trip to Mars takes about 10 months, and MAVEN is scheduled to go into orbit in September 2014. It is the first spacecraft created exclusively to study the Martian upper atmosphere. Its wingspan measures 37.5 feet—not quite the length of a school bus—and it weighs 1,991 pounds—about the same amount as a small car.

MAVEN is equipped with eight different tools to measure and study the planet’s atmosphere. To collect information, it will fly in an orbit as fast as 3,278 miles per hour, and as slow as 93 miles per hour.

Once it arrives at the Red Planet, MAVEN will have plenty of company. The rover Curiosity is still zipping around the planet’s rocky surface, studying the geology, chemistry and possible biology of Mars. India launched its first unmanned mission earlier this month. NASA currently has a number of orbiters capturing unique views of Mars with powerful cameras and telescopes.

These missions are all slow, steady steps forward to unveil Mars’s secret past. While the end results may not be revealed for some time, an exciting exploration lies ahead.