Due to a changing climate, water is set to become an ever more precious commodity here on Earth over the next few decades – and the new NASA mission to Mars might just help us to understand more about the causes of the climate change. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (Maven), which blasted off on November 18th, will send a spacecraft to orbit the desert planet and fill in some of the blanks left by the Curiosity rover.
Curiosity has already discovered some fascinating evidence pointing to the existence of huge volumes of water on Mars at some point in the planet’s past – suggesting it may once have supported life. Maven is armed with all kinds of instruments that will allow to it investigate the composition and behaviour of the Red Planet’s atmosphere, the Sun’s influence on the planetary surface and changes in Mars’ magnetic field.
All this is hoped to help scientists find out just what happened to the atmosphere Mars would have needed to keep so much water on its surface. The current prevailing theory is that the atmosphere began drifting off into space when the planet lost its magnetic field around four billion years ago – although why this happened is still a mystery.
“Mars is a complicated system, just as complicated as the Earth in its own way,” said the mission’s lead investigator Bruce Jakosky in a press release. “You can’t hope, with a single spacecraft, to study all aspects and to learn everything there is to know about it. With Maven, we’re exploring the single biggest unexplored piece of Mars so far.”
Maven will arrive in Mars’ orbit on September 22nd, 2014 and will spend around a year orbiting the planet while it gathers data – including five planned “deep dips” that will take it to within 78 miles of the Martian surface.