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NASA prepares mission to study martian atmosphere

As the Curiosity rover lumbers across the surface of the Red Planet, another mission from NASA is being planned that is supposed to help us better understand how Mars evolved.

“The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN) will examine specific processes on Mars that led to the loss of much of its atmosphere,” according to the agency. “Data and analysis could tell planetary scientists the history of climate change on the Red Planet and provide further information on the history of planetary habitability.”

The MAVEN spacecraft will launch Nov. 18 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, if everything goes according to plan. Once it is orbiting our neighboring planet, the craft will then analyze the upper realms of the martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail.

"The MAVEN mission is a significant step toward unraveling the planetary puzzle about Mars' past and present environments," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The knowledge we gain will build on past and current missions examining Mars and will help inform future missions to send humans to Mars."

Both the MAVEN and the Curiosity missions will help immensely with a possible manned mission to Mars.

"Launch is an important event, but it's only a step along the way to getting the science measurements," said Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. "We're excited about the science we'll be doing, and are anxious now to get to Mars."

The spacecraft and the instruments aboard were manufactured as a collaboration between the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Colorado, Boulder and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"When we proposed and were selected to develop MAVEN back in 2008, we set our sights on Nov. 18, 2013, as our first launch opportunity," said Dave Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at Goddard. "Now we are poised to launch on that very day. That's quite an accomplishment by the team."

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket will carry the 5,410-pound MAVEN spacecraft on its 10-month journey to the Red Planet, right now scheduled to end in September of 2014. At that point, the craft will settle into its elliptical science orbit. Over the next year, MAVEN will observe all of Mars’ latitudes.

Not only will the mission provide crucial information about Mars, it will also illuminate the nature of climate change, something also important to us over here on Earth.