WASHINGTON: Nasa’s spacecraft, Maven, began orbiting Mars on Sunday to study how Mars’ climate changed over time from warm and wet to cold and dry. The unmanned orbiter has travelled more than 10 months and 442 million miles (711 million km) to reach for a first-of-its kind look at the planet’s upper atmosphere.
The data from the spacecraft aims to help scientists understand what happened to the water on Mars and the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere several billion years ago.
The answers could shed light on the planet’s potential to support life, even if that was just microbial life, long ago.
Maven’s findings are also expected to help discover how humans could survive on a future visit to the planet, perhaps as early as 2030.
Next, Maven will enter a six-week phase for tests.
It will then begin a study of the gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and how it interacts with the sun and solar wind.
Much of Maven’s year-long mission will be spent circling the planet 3,730 miles above the surface.
However, it will execute five deep dips to a distance of just 78 miles above the Martian landscape to get readings of the atmosphere at various levels.
Nasa is the world’s most successful space agency in sending rovers and probes to Mars. The US space agency’s latest robotic vehicle, Curiosity, is exploring Gale Crater and Mount Sharp, looking for interesting rocks and returning data on whether the Martian environment shows evidence of a past ability to support life.
Later this week, an Indian spacecraft, the MOM, is expected to reach Mars. The unmanned MOM probe is set to enter Mars’ orbit in the coming days after 10 months in space, marking India’s first mission to Mars. — AFP
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on Sept 23, 2014.