The idea of humans one day colonizing Mars is a tantalizing one, but there are some obvious obstacles to our long-term residency on the red planet. Chief among them? The absence of water. Research has established that Mars used to have liquid water on its surface, but now it’s a dry, dusty, inhospitable desert.
Today, NASA will launch a new mission — one that cost $671 million and has been in development for 10 years — to determine what happened to the water on Mars. The Curiosity rover has given us some insight into the conundrum, such as confirming that Mars used to host liquid water by spotting visible stream beds. Curiosity also established, via chemical analysis, that water still exists in Martian soil. It could be that some of the missing water has been absorbed into the soil or simply frozen. But scientists are intrigued by another possibility — water on Mars may have evaporated and been lost to space.
The agency will now investigate that exact hypothesis with a new probe, called MAVEN, which will orbit around our red neighbor. MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, and as the name implies, MAVEN’s mission is to characterize the Martian atmosphere. Researchers will use the data gathered by MAVEN to construct a history of the climate on Mars and paint a picture of how Mars lost its water.
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