NASA spacecraft approaches Mars to seek answers to lost water

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NASA spacecraft approaches Mars to seek answers to lost water
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft with solar panels extended September 27, 2013 is checked by technicians in preparation for a November 18 launch to Mars at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It is scheduled to go into orbit around Mars on September 22, 2014 and begin taking data on the upper atmosphere, solar winds and magnetic fields that will be transmitted back to Earth. AFP PHOTO/Bruce Weaver (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft with solar panels extended September 27, 2013 is checked by technicians in preparation for a November 18 launch to Mars at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It is scheduled to go into orbit around Mars on September 22, 2014 and begin taking data on the upper atmosphere, solar winds and magnetic fields that will be transmitted back to Earth. AFP PHOTO/Bruce Weaver (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft with solar panels extended September 27, 2013 is checked by technicians in preparation for a November 18 launch to Mars at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It is scheduled to go into orbit around Mars on September 22, 2014 and begin taking data on the upper atmosphere, solar winds and magnetic fields that will be transmitted back to Earth. AFP PHOTO/Bruce Weaver (Photo credit should read BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images)
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - NOVEMBER 16: In this handout photo provided by NASA, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft as payload rolls out of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad November 16, 2013 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The space agency's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission (MAVEN for short) is on a mission to study the upper atmosphere of Mars in hopes to discover how the planet lost most of its atmosphere and liquid water. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
LITTLETON, CO - JULY 15: Lockheed Martin engineer Jack Farmerie is preparing to remove the primary high gain antennae from the MAVEN spacecraft for transport. The NASA MAVEN Mars spacecraft is spending its final days at Lockheed Martin labs before it is packed and shipped to Florida in early August. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, scheduled for launch in November 2013, will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere. The goal of MAVEN is to determine the role that loss of atmospheric gas to space played in changing the Martian climate through time. MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The university will provide science operations, science instruments and lead Education/Public Outreach. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. United Launch Alliance, in Centennial, Colo. is providing the Atlas V launch vehicle. (Photo By Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
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By IRENE KLOTZ

(Reuters) - A NASA spacecraft designed to investigate how Mars lost its water is expected to put itself into orbit around the Red Planet on Sunday after a 10-month journey.

After traveling 442 million miles (711 million km) from Earth, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, probe faces a do-or-die burn of its six braking rockets beginning at 9:37 p.m. EDT.

If successful, the thruster burns will trim enough speed for MAVEN to be captured by Mars' gravity and fall into a looping orbit.

Over the next six weeks, as engineers check MAVEN's nine science instruments, the spacecraft will maneuver itself into an operational orbit that comes as close as 93 miles (150 km) and as far away as 3,853 miles (6,200 km) from Mars' surface.

Unlike previous Mars orbiters, landers and rovers, MAVEN will focus on the planet's atmosphere, which scientists suspect was once far thicker than the puny envelope of mostly carbon dioxide gas that surrounds it today.

Denser air would be needed for water to pool on the surface. While no water appears there today, Mars is covered with ancient river channels, lakebeds and chemical evidence of a warmer, wetter past.

"Where did the water go? Where did the CO2 (carbon dioxide) go from that early environment?" MAVEN lead science Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado, asked reporters this week. "It can go two places: down in the crust or up to the top of the atmosphere where it can be lost to space," he said.

MAVEN's focus is the latter. The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, will spend a year monitoring what happens when the solar wind and other charged particles hit the upper layers of Mars' atmosphere, stripping it away.

By studying the atmosphere today, scientists expect to learn about the processes involved and then use computer models to extrapolate back in time. Ultimately, scientists want to learn if Mars had the right conditions for life to evolve.

MAVEN, said Jakosky, will tell them "the boundary conditions that surround the potential for life."

MAVEN will join a fleet of two U.S. orbiters, two U.S. rovers and a European orbiter currently working at Mars. India's first Mars probe is due to arrive on Wednesday.

NASA's MAVEN Begins Mission To Study Why Mars Dried Up


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