NASA's Maven spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today for a 10-month journey to the Red Planet.
The Maven (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) spacecraft will help scientists find out what happened to the planet's atmosphere and the water that flowed there long ago.
"Scientifically, this is very important," said John Clarke, an astronomy professor at Boston University and a Maven science team member. "The rovers want to find little things on the surface today, and Maven is interested in the long-term history of Mars. Were the conditions ripe 3 billion years ago for life to have gotten started on Mars? It could be that it had life, maybe bacteria, even before Earth did."
Maven launched at 1:28 p.m. ET aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. NASA reported that all systems functioned as expected as the spacecraft set off on what will likely be at least a one-year mission.
The trip to Mars takes 10 months. Maven is expected to go into orbit around Mars in September and begin its work.
Maven is the first spacecraft that NASA has sent to solely study the Martian atmosphere. Researchers believe that Mars may have had "a thick atmosphere 4 billion years ago that was rich with the same chemical elements familiar to Earth's own air," NASA wrote in a blog post today. "What happened since, though, is a mystery."
Scientists theorize that Mars lost its magnetic field, which had protected the planet's surface from the sun's solar winds. Without the protection of the magnetic field, Mars lost much of its water.
"If Mars started out with a thick atmosphere and water on the surface, then it evolved and lost all of that," Clarke told Computerworld. "It could have frozen in the surface or it could have boiled off in the upper atmosphere into space."
What scientists learn about Mars' atmosphere could provide information on the future of Earth.
"We would like to know where the Earth is going," added Clarke. "What's the role of climate change? What's changing in the short term and the long term?"
The most daunting task facing the Maven team is getting the spacecraft to Mars and in the proper position to conduct its scientific work, Clarke said.
"Getting to Mars in the first place is not easy," he said. "You have to get there and get into the right orbit. You have to have power and communication with Earth and other spacecraft. There's a lot that has to work right."
Maven carries at least eight scientific instruments, including one to measure solar particles, a solar wind analyzer and other tools to measure ultraviolet light and neutral gas.
This article, Next stop, Mars: NASA's Maven spacecraft blasts off for 10-month journey, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.