On November 18th, 2013, a 670 million dollar spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Scientists rejoiced when it reached space successfully, and NASA enthusiasts were engaged for a short time, but as the shuttle disappeared into the void of space towards its destination, it also disappeared from the public eye.
The launch of MAVEN (fig. 1)
But, ten months later, on September 21th 2014, it reached its destination: the orbit of Mars. This spacecraft, roughly the length of a school bus, is called MAVEN, or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, with it’s primary task being to discover how and why Mars evolved into the red planet we see today. More specifically, scientists have described the mission as “the first mission devoted to studying the upper Martian atmosphere as a key to understanding the history of Mars’ climate, water and habitability,” (CNN).
An artist’s representation of MAVEN orbiting Mars (fig. 2)
But why research this? Don’t humans already know everything about the planets in our solar system? To answer this question we must first step back and examine our own world, the planet earth. Earth’s atmosphere is composed of five layers, the Troposphere, nitrogen, oxygen and water vapor rich, the Stratosphere, protecting us from the ultra violet rays of the sun, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, provider of the northern lights, and lastly, the most outer layer, the Exosphere, which gradually fades into space. Our atmosphere is very complex, as the combination of these layers together is what makes life on our planet possible. Mars has an atmosphere as well, but one much less complicated. It consists of four regions, the lower atmosphere, full of airborne dust, middle atmosphere, where the jet stream flows, and upper atmosphere, also known as thermosphere, the hottest region due to the heat of the sun, and lastly, the Exosphere, which is the same as that of Earths, where Mars’ atmosphere stops and slowly fades into the vacuum of space. The air on Mars consists of 95.3% carbon dioxide and 2.7% nitrogen, with the remaining 2% a combination of other gases. Mars’ atmosphere also is much, much less dense than that of Earth’s. But however thin it is, it exists, as if Mars did not have an atmosphere, pictures from the surface would show a black sky day and night, like the sky observed from Earth’s moon.
As one can discern from this information, Mars’ atmosphere is not suitable for human, plant, or animal life. It contains no oxygen, vital for survival, and has an empty, barren surface, devoid of resources or any sort of vegetation. But what drove Scientists to send MAVEN to the red planet was that they believe Mars was not always this way. They hypothesize that billions of years ago, Mars used to look like earth, that it had running water, and forests. Instead of red, the surface was blue and green. They believe that years and years ago Mars’ atmosphere was much more dense, and could support water in its’ liquid form on the surface. Curiosity, a rover from NASA that is currently roaming the planet, has found frozen materials in rocks, and indications of water beneath the exterior surface, showing this hypothesis to be probably true. But over time this seemingly Earth-like atmosphere and environment was lost, due to dramatic climate change. So what happened? Theories include Mars losing gas to space (an encroaching exosphere) over time, the loss of magnetic field, or the sun slowly stripping the atmosphere away. But there have been no real conclusions, as there has never been enough information or evidence to make them. Until, possibly, now. My personal opinion on what I have discovered about MAVEN, first, is that it is fascinating how we, as humans, are still discovering information about our solar system. To answer my earlier question posed: there is still so much we don’t know. After learning about MAVEN, I am itching to know what NASA discovers, if anything. I am hoping the news stations will soon light up some time over this next year, excitedly announcing that NASA has discovered influential and vitally important information about Mars from the MAVEN mission! But we will just have to wait and see.
What Scientists believe the surface of Mars used to look like (fig. 4)
As MAVEN begin its one year year long research mission, it will sample the gas and ion composition of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. Scientists know now that Mars’ atmosphere is cold and dry place where liquid water cannot exist in a stable state. They believe they know what it used to be like: teeming with green and blue. But soon they may discover what caused the transformation of this now, red, barren planet, and this could change the way we see our universe forever. The age old question “Will we ever be able to live on Mars?” may soon be one step closer to answered, all because of a change in atmosphere.
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The Comparison of the Atmospheres of Earth and Mars. Digital image. Science Junkie. Oct. 2013. Web. 01 Oct. 2014. <http://science-junkie.tumblr.com/post/50042175706/atomstargazer-a-comparison-of-earths-and-mars#.VC39lC5dUgN>.
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Presto, Suzanne. “MAVEN Spacecraft Enters Mars Orbit to Explore Its Climate Change.” CNN. Cable News Network, 21 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/21/tech/mars-maven-spacecraft-orbit/index.html?iref=allsearch>.