Nasa has given the green light to a $438 million (£275 million) mission to Mars aimed at investigating the mystery of how the ‘red planet’ lost its atmosphere.


The US space agency gave the approval on Monday for “the development and 2013 launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) mission,” noting that the project may also show Mars’ history of supporting life.

“A better understanding of the upper atmosphere and the role that escape to space has played is required to plug a major hole in our understanding of Mars,” said Maven’s lead investigator Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

“We’re really excited about having the opportunity to address these fundamental science questions,” he added.

Three main scientific instruments will be launched to Mars aboard a craft in November 2013 as part of the project.

Clues on Mars’ surface, including features that resemble ancient riverbeds and minerals that could only form in the presence of liquid water, suggest the planet “once had a denser atmosphere, which supported the presence of liquid water on the surface,” said Nasa.
However, most of the Martian atmosphere was lost as part of a dramatic climate shift.

“Looking forward, we are well positioned for the next push to critical design review in July 2011. In three short years, we’ll be heading to Mars!” said David Mitchell of NASA’s Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Mars can’t protect itself from the solar wind because it no longer has a shield, the planet’s global magnetic field is dead,” said Jakosky, describing how the magnetic field disappeared and the atmosphere then exposed to the punishing solar wind.

Joseph Grebowsky, also of the Goddard Space Flight Center, said that previous observations “gave us ‘proof of the crime’ but only provided tantalising hints at how the sun pulls it off – the various ways Mars can lose its atmosphere to solar activity.”

Maven, he said, “will examine all known ways the sun is currently swiping the Martian atmosphere, and may discover new ones as well. It will also watch how the loss changes as solar activity changes over a year.”

“This project is a vital complement to past, present, and future Mars missions,” said Michael Meyer of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program in Washington.

“Maven will take us a step closer in learning about the evolution of our intriguing celestial neighbour,” he said.

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin will manufacture the spacecraft based on designs of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, launched in 2005 and 2001, respectively.