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18 Nov, 2013 18:55

NASA launches Maven to reveal Mars’ biggest secret (VIDEO)

NASA successfully launched its Maven orbiter into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Monday as part of the agency’s latest operation aimed at exploring the vast mysteries of Earth’s neighbor, Mars.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN — or “Maven” — was launched as expected Monday afternoon after being propelled into space atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Now it begins its 10-month journey towards the Red Planet, where it is expected to begin orbiting sometime next September.

First, of course, Maven will have to make it millions of miles away and enter the atmosphere of Mars, which may in fact never even happen: of the ten orbiters sent previously by NASA, only seven have been successful.

Assuming it enters Mar’s atmosphere, however, Maven is scheduled to spend around an entire Earth year orbiting the planet and accumulating information about its little-known atmosphere, perhaps providing scientists with information that could be used to see what kind of life, if any, could have one time existed there.

Nov. 18, 2013, In the Launch Control Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, agency and contractor managers and engineers monitor progress in the countdown to launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, spacecraft atop an Atlas V rocket. (Image credit: NASA)

"We want to better understand how the atmosphere is escaping from Mars," NASA research scientist Paul Mahaffy told ABC News. "Then, we can extrapolate back in time and ask, 'Was Mars' climate substantially different than it is today?'"

Astronomer and writer Phil Plait wrote for Slate this week that lots of evidence exists that Mars had liquid water on its surface at some point as far back as millions, or perhaps billions, of years ago. Modern research has revealed that that water has since dried up, however, lending Plait to ask the question, “Where did it go?”

“Maven will use its suite of eight instruments to examine the upper atmosphere of Mars and investigate the interaction between the gas there and the Sun,” he wrote. “Scientists will examine these data to look for clues on the missing Martian atmosphere… and for that matter, try to figure out where all the water went as well.”

Bruce Jakosky, a planetary scientist and Maven's principal investigator, told NBC that NASA hopes Maven will be able to collect information about Mars’ current atmosphere that will ideally give researchers enough intel to try and find out how the atmosphere there has been altered over upwards of four billion years.

This artist's concept shows the MAVEN spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet, with a fanciful image of her home planet in the background. (Credit: NASA/Goddard)

And unlike other NASA tools deployed to Mars, such as the Curiosity rover, Maven will stay in orbit its entire time, never touching down on the planet and instead using its vast sensors to collect and transmit information — at a cost of around $671 million.

Had the launch been delayed on Monday, such as due to weather, NASA would have had only another few weeks to reschedule the mission. After mid-December, the orbital dynamics regarding both Earth and Mars would have made a fuel-efficient trip between the planets much more difficult.