Mission possible: NASA heads to Mars to answer questions

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Assuming all goes according to plan, the Maven (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) probe launched from Cape Canaveral earlier this week, will rendezvous with the red planet on Sept. 22, 2014, after a 440 million-mile journey — nearly a year after it left Earth.

Once it arrives, the school bus-length spacecraft will travel an irregular orbit around Mars for a year, dipping as low as 78 miles above the surface and as high as 3,864 miles. Its primary mission will be to measure and study the gases in the upper atmosphere and how the sun affects it.

That may not sound exciting, but it will go a long way in answering the question underlying all planetary missions — could life have taken hold on another world once upon a time? Is life as ubiquitous as we think it is?

Scientists are eager to understand the disappearance of an atmosphere that was once thick enough to hold water, and possibly, microbial life. What happened to Mars’ atmosphere and is there anything about what happened on that planet billions of years ago that we should be mindful of?

There are a lot of theories about how what was once a relatively wet world became a cold and arid desert planet, but Maven’s complement of high-tech instruments will transmit a treasure trove of data.

It isn’t enough to land rovers on a planet with the capacity to dig holes in strategic places. Scientists have to understand a lot more about a planet’s ancient history to answer the most profound questions. Once again, NASA has designed a relatively inexpensive robotic mission that will yield priceless scientific information. Not bad for a $671 million investment.

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