MAVEN Launches Towards Mars
MAVEN launched successfully this morning to start its mission to study the Martian atmosphere. Launching aboard the Atlas V 401, the most -used and lighter version of the V, the spacecraft will take 10 months to reach Mars before inserting itself into a highly elliptical orbit.
The mission summary is often a bland "to study the martian atmosphere" but the longer version is actually quite interesting. Despite Mars' similarity in size and proximity to Earth, it's obviously quite different. One of the reasons why Mars is so incredibly arid is the lack of an atmosphere like ours and without it many of the qualities that keep Earth habitable are lost.
While the greenhouse effect is usually noted as part of some doomsday scenario on Earth, the danger is actually a significant change in the greenhouse effect, not the effect itself. In fact, the greenhouse insulation provided by our atmosphere is how we can stay comfortable in comparison to the cold void of space. Our atmosphere's ability to hold moisture is also a key part of what makes Earth habitable. The thin Martian atmosphere is unable to do both of these things and it's much of the reason for Mars' current condition.
The question is, of course, how did Mars get this way? We know that Mars has a negligible magnetic field which would otherwise help keep the solar wind from slowly blowing away the atmosphere. But how strong is the solar wind and what are the effects on the outer regions of Mars' atmosphere? Can we use this data to tell if and when Mars was a place with more atmospheric moisture? These are just some of the questions that MAVEN hopes to answer when it arrives in September of 2014.