A robotic probe blasted off from Florida on Monday, starting a 10-month journey to the red planet. NASA is hoping the MAVEN spacecraft will help answer questions about why Mars is such a cold and desolate planet, and what that means for possible life there, and elsewhere.
The Atlas V rocket lifted off with a roar just before 1:30 p.m., ducking in and out of clouds as it rocketed towards space.
It's NASA's seventh mission to Mars in the last decade, but this will be one of the first to focus on the planet's thin atmosphere rather than its famously red surface.
Most scientists believe Mars used to have a wet climate with everything from rivers and oceans to rain and snow – similar to Earth. But over the billions of years, something happened.
"Now Mars is now this cold, dry desert," explained Michelle Thaller, Ph.D. of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "So the question is, what happened? We're sort of doing a bit of a forensic examination here. What happened to that Martian climate and why is it so unfriendly?"
MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, will not be landing. Instead, the craft will be orbiting the planet at altitudes as low as 70 miles.
"We're going to be directly sampling the chemistry and structure of that upper atmosphere," Thaller continued.
Scientists hope MAVEN will answer questions about the history of Mars, but in doing so, they may learn more about how planets change in general – whether it's Mars, Earth, or one of the many newly discovered planets outside our solar system.
"I see this as a much broader mission than just exploring the Mars upper atmosphere today and learning about the history of the climate, but that's where we start because those are the questions that we get the first answers to," offered the mission's lead investigator, Bruce Jakosky, Ph.D.
With the mission's on-time liftoff, the team may get a bonus. There may be time to turn the spacecraft's instruments on Comet ISON, which is speeding toward the sun and could provide a spectacular show in the night sky later this year.
"Many of the same gasses that are present in the Mars atmosphere are also present in comets," explained Nick Schneider, Ph.D., "So what an ideal opportunity for us to try out our instrument and do some good science along the way."