CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Monday, sending a Mars orbiter on its way to study how the planet most like Earth in the solar system lost its water.
Unlike previous Mars probes, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or MAVEN, will not be looking at or landing on the planet's dry, dusty surface. Instead, MAVEN will scan and sample what remains of the thin Martian atmosphere and watch in real-time how it is peeled away, molecule by molecule, by killer solar radiation.
The first step of the planned year-long, $671 million mission was getting MAVEN into space. The satellite, tucked inside a protective nosecone, lifted off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket at 1:28 p.m. EST/1838 GMT to begin a 10-month flight to Mars.
United Launch Alliance is a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Upon arrival, MAVEN will fire its braking rocket to put itself into a highly elliptical orbit around Mars, which will allow it to dip down as close as about 65 miles (105 km) from the ground to gather air samples for analysis.
At its highest point, MAVEN will be about 3,728 miles (6,000 km) away, a vantage point for measuring how much and what types of radiation are sweeping past the planet from the sun and cosmic sources.
The point of the project is to determine how much of the atmosphere is being lost to space today and extrapolate back in time to figure out what was happening in Mars' past.