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NASA launches Maven spacecraft to Mars

NASA’s unmanned Maven spacecraft has departed for Mars, tasked with finding the answer to that planet’s radical climate change. Maven is due to arrive in September 2014, with the mission to cost $671 million.

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NASA's Maven Mars mission

Short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, Maven is the first NASA mission charged with studying the Martian upper atmosphere, and will bid to shed light as to why Mars transformed from a water-bearing planet to a dry, barren desert.

"Everything is looking good," NASA mission control announced as the white Atlas V 401 rocket carrying Maven blasted off at 1:28 p.m. local time (1828 UTC) on Monday in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Maven's yearlong mission, at a price of 497 million euros, will largely be spent circulating the planet 6,000 kilometers (3,800 miles) above the surface. It will also consist of five dips to a distance of 125 kilometers in order to get readings of the atmosphere at different levels.

"Maven is the first spacecraft devoted to exploring and understanding the Martian upper atmosphere," the US space agency said. "The spacecraft will investigate how the loss of Mars' atmosphere to space determined the history of water on the surface."

Bruce Jakovsky, the mission's principal investigator, added: "With Maven, we're exploring the single biggest unexplored piece of Mars so far.”

Maven will join the rover craft Curiosity in NASA's investigations of Mars. Launched in 2011, Curiosity has clocked 2.6 miles on its odometer after more than a year exploring the planet's surface.

Maven could reach Mars two day earlier than the spacecraft launched by India on November 5. The brief of the Mangalyaan, however, is different from its US counterpart in that it will be searching the atmosphere for signs of methane.

Maven's findings are likely to play a part in NASA's attempts to send humans to Mars, potentially as early as 2030.

ph/mkg (AFP, AP)

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