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New NASA Mars Mission Led By CU Aims To Reveal How Mars Lost Air & Water

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The Maven Orbiter

The Maven Orbiter (credit: CBS)

DENVER (CBS4) – How did Mars lose its air, water and possible life? It’s a Martian mystery that NASA hopes to solve with a new spacecraft that was built in Colorado.

“About 3.8 billion years ago, Mars was wet and warm. It was raining. It was probably snowing in the higher elevations,” Dr. Michelle Thaller with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center told CBS this week.

In other words, “it was much more Earth-like,” Thaller said.

But then it went from an environment that might have been conducive to supporting life to the dry, bitterly cold planet it is today. The question is — where did all the air and water go?

NASA will launch a spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Monday to try to answer that. It’s called the Maven Orbiter, and it was built by Lockheed Martin in Colorado. The $671 million NASA mission is being led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Maven will orbit what’s left of Mars’ thin upper atmosphere.

“Actually dipping down and literally tasting, taking in chemicals, from the upper atmosphere. And we’re trying to see how much of the atmosphere is lost to space over time, specifically by the sun,” said Thaller.

The sun is the lead suspect, blasting out highly charged particles called the solar wind.

Earth is protected from those powerful waves by a strong magnetic field — something Mars does not have.

“And over billions of years, we think the sun stripped away almost all the air on Mars,” Thaller said.

At least that’s the theory the Maven spacecraft is being sent up to test.

Since Mars’ atmosphere is pretty much long gone, this is something of a forensic mission.

“We want to know what the culprit was. It’s kind of a CSI forensic investigation. What killed Mars?” said Thaller.

The Maven’s Monday liftoff will be followed by a 10-month journey before it arrives at Mars.

“I have incredible appreciation for the work the MAVEN team has done over the last 10 years to put us in the best possible shape for a successful mission,” CU-Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky said in a prepared statement. “I’m proud of what our team has accomplished, and we are anxiously awaiting a successful launch.”

Additional Resources

For more information about MAVEN visit lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven

- CBSDenver.com sister station CBSBaltimore.com contributed to this report.

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