CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA’s newest robotic explorer, MAVEN, rocketed toward Mars on Monday on a quest to unravel the ancient mystery of the red planet’s radical climate change.
The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft is due at Mars next fall following a journey of more than 440 million miles.
“Hey, guys, we’re going to Mars!” MAVEN’s principal scientist, Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told reporters after liftoff.
Jakosky and others want to know why Mars went from being warm and wet during its first billion years to cold and dry today. The early Martian atmosphere was thick enough to hold water and possibly support microbial life. But much of that atmosphere may have been lost to space, eroded by the sun.
MAVEN set off through a cloudy afternoon sky in its bid to provide answers. An unmanned Atlas V rocket put the spacecraft on the proper course for Mars, and launch controllers applauded and shook hands over the success.
Ten years in the making, MAVEN had Nov. 18, 2013, as its original launch date, “and we hit it,” NASA project manager David Mitchell said.
Jakosky, MAVEN’s mastermind, said he was anxious and even shaking as the final seconds of the countdown ticked away.
Surviving liftoff was the first big hurdle, Jakosky said. The next huge milestone will be MAVEN’s insertion into orbit around Mars on Sept. 22, 2014.
To help solve Mars’ environmental puzzle, MAVEN will spend an entire Earth year measuring atmospheric gases.
This is NASA’s 21st mission to Mars since the 1960s. But it’s the first one devoted to studying the Martian upper atmosphere.