NASA launches Maven robotic explorer to Mars; journey of more than 440M miles

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The Maven spacecraft blasted off aboard an unmanned rocket from Cape Canaveral on Monday. It will take Maven 10 months to reach Mars following a journey of more than 440 million miles.

This is NASA's 21st mission to Mars since the 1960s. But it's the first one devoted to studying the Martian upper atmosphere.

Scientists want to know why Mars went from being warm and wet during its first billion years, to the cold and dry place it is 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 may solve this case of mysterious climate change.

Watch video of the launch below (mobile users: http://bit.ly/1bz3s7i):

More details about the mission:

FLIGHT TIME

The journey to Mars will take 10 months, putting Maven in orbit around the red planet in September 2014. The spacecraft will circle the red planet for a full Earth year, examining the upper atmosphere. It will dip as low as 78 miles above Mars to sample the atmosphere. Its orbit will extend as high as 3,864 miles.

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PURPOSE

Scientists want to learn how Mars transformed from a warm, wet planet a few billion years ago to the dry, cold world of today. The atmosphere went from thick to thin. Much of the atmospheric gas may have escaped into space. The sun is the likely culprit.

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COST

The Maven mission will cost $671 million over its entire lifetime. That includes the price of the unmanned Atlas V rocket used to launch the spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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MAVEN SPACECRAFT

When its solar wings are extended, Maven stretches 37.5 feet — about the length of a school bus. It weighs 5,410 pounds, the same weight as an SUV. Eight scientific instruments are on board, as well as communications relay equipment for use with Mars landers. Maven stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, with a capital "N'' at the end of EvolutioN. The idea for Maven dates back 10 years. Scientists hope to keep it going well beyond its advertised working lifetime of one Earth year. The project is led for NASA by the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.

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ABOUT MARS

Mars is the most similar planet to Earth in our solar system, with the greatest prospects of habitability for future astronauts. Mars is about half the size of Earth but has about the same land area. A Martian year lasts 687 Earth days.

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MARS MISSIONS

Maven is NASA's 21st mission to Mars. Fourteen of the first 20 succeeded. The 1964 Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to fly by the red planet. Curiosity was America's most recent Mars visitor, launching in 2011 and landing in 2012.

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CHUGGING AWAY AT MARS

Three spacecraft currently are collecting data in orbit around Mars: NASA's 2001-launched Mars Odyssey, Europe's 2003-launched Mars Express and NASA's 2005-launched Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Two rovers are on the surface, still working: NASA's 2003-launched Opportunity and 2011-launched Curiosity.

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FUTURE MARS SHOTS

NASA plans to launch a robotic geologist named InSight in 2016; the lander will penetrate the Martian surface with a seismometer and heat probe. The next NASA wheeled rover will fly in 2020, collecting rock samples for potential return to Earth. A human expedition is not anticipated until the 2030s.

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