NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Nasa’s Maven Mars mission nears launch

Will arrive before India’s Mars Orbiter Mission

Hot on the heels of India, NASA is planning to launch a Mars orbiter called Maven that will investigate how the Red Planet’s weak atmosphere is affected by the energy emitted by the Sun.

The Martian atmosphere is thin and comprised mostly of carbon dioxide, but evidence suggests that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time it’s thought that the planet had a dense atmosphere that allowed liquid water to flow across its surface.

Mars lacks a magnetic field like Earth’s, meaning that the full force of the solar wind hits it head on, rather than being deflected around the planet. Over millions of years, it’s thought that this powerful effect has robbed the Red Planet of its atmosphere, leaving it the cold, dry husk it is today.

To try and find out more about how this effect occurs, Maven will orbit Mars and measure the rates at which different atmospheric gases are escaping to space. The idea is that Maven will study the top of the Martian atmosphere while NASA’s Curiosity rover gathers data from below.It’ll also relay data from Curiosity back to Earth.

The probe’s mission is set to last one Earth year, after which the team will need to apply for extra funding to keep things going. “If things go nominally, we should have fuel left onboard to keep the vehicle flying for years beyond its design life,” explained NASA. “As a reference, Mars Odyssey was launched in 2001 and is still operating.”

Maven is expected to arrive at Mars on 22 September 2014, beating the recently-launched Indian Mars probe by a few days thanks to a slightly more direct trajectory. The two probes will be studying very similar things, however Nasa’s probe is expected to cost $671 million over its lifetime — as opposed to India’s budget of just $72 million.

Nasa’s promotional video for the mission can be seen right here:

Nasa Goddard
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