A U.S. spacecraft has arrived at Mars to study the planet’s upper atmosphere and help scientists answer questions about how its climate has changed over time.
The craft named the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, completed a 10-month, 711 million-kilometer journey late Sunday.
It will measure the rates at which gases escape the Martian atmosphere into space.
Bruce Jakosky, who is leading the science side of the mission, said the goal is to understand what caused significant changes to the climate on Mars during the past few billion years.
“So we’re looking at what happens at the top of the atmosphere, how the processes involving the sun and the solar wind affect the gas at the top of the atmosphere and strip it away to space. So in essence, that’s our goal, to answer the question where did the water go, where did the carbon dioxide go?” Jakosky said.
Implications of study
Scientists suspect Mars lost 99 percent of its atmosphere over millions of years as the planet cooled and its magnetic field decayed, allowing charged particles in the solar wind to strip away water and other atmospheric gases.
Learning about how Mars lost its water is key to understanding if the planet most like Earth in the solar system ever could have supported life.
MAVEN will take six weeks to settle into its orbit around Mars and test its instruments before beginning the one-year mission, which carries a price tag of $671 million.
There are three other spacecraft currently orbiting Mars – two American and one European. Another from India is due to arrive Wednesday.
Maven is NASA’s 21st shot at Mars and the first since the Curiosity rover landed on the red planet in 2012, The Associated Press reported.
Just this month, Curiosity arrived at its prime science target, a mountain named Sharp, ripe for drilling. The Opportunity rover is also still active a decade after landing.
All these robotic scouts are paving the way for the human explorers that NASA hopes to send in the 2030s. The space agency wants to understand as much about the red planet as possible before it sends people there, AP reported.
Some material for this report came from Reuters and AP.