The U.S. space agency NASA announced it has given the green light to a mission to Mars aimed at investigating the mystery of how the ‘red planet’ lost its atmosphere.
NASA gave the approval for “the development and 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission,” the agency said in a statement, noting that the project may also show Mars’ history of supporting life.
“A better understanding of the upper atmosphere and the role that escape to space has played is required to plug a major hole in our understanding of Mars,” said MAVEN’s lead investigator Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Discovering Mars’ secrets
“We’re really excited about having the opportunity to address these fundamental science questions,” he added.
Three main scientific instruments will be launched to Earth’s neighbour aboard a craft in November 2013 as part of the 438-million-dollar project.
Clues on Mars’ surface, including features that resemble ancient riverbeds and minerals that could only form in the presence of liquid water, suggest the planet “once had a denser atmosphere, which supported the presence of liquid water on the surface,” said NASA.
Heading to Mars in three years
However, most of the Martian atmosphere was lost as part of a dramatic climate shift.
“Looking forward, we are well positioned for the next push to critical design review in July 2011. In three short years, we’ll be heading to Mars!” exclaimed MAVEN project manager David Mitchell of NASA’s Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Centre.
“Mars can’t protect itself from the solar wind because it no longer has a shield, the planet’s global magnetic field is dead,” said Jakosky, describing how the magnetic field disappeared and the atmosphere then exposed to the punishing solar wind.