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New Spacecraft Might Reveal How Mars Lost Air And Water

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Alex DeMetrick 370x278 Alex DeMetrick
Alex DeMetrick has been a general assignment reporter with WJZ...
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GREENBELT, Md. (WJZ) — Cracking a Martian mystery. That’s what NASA hopes to achieve with a new spacecraft.

Alex DeMetrick reports it might answer an old question — how did Mars lose its air, water and possible life?

This is the way NASA thinks Mars used to look.

“[About] 3.8 billion years ago, Mars was wet and warm. It was raining. It was probably snowing in the higher elevations,” said Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

In other words, “it was much more Earth-like,” Thaller said.

But then it went from an environment that might have been conducive to supporting life, to the dry, bitterly cold planet it is today. The question is — where did all the air and water go?

NASA will launch a spacecraft Monday to try to answer that. It’s called “Maven,” and it will orbit what’s left of Mars’ thin upper atmosphere.

“Actually dipping down and literally tasting, taking in chemicals, from the upper atmosphere. And we’re trying to see how much of the atmosphere is lost to space over time, specifically by the sun,” said Thaller.

The sun is the lead suspect, blasting out highly charged particles called the solar wind.

Earth is protected from those powerful waves by a strong magnetic field — something Mars does not have.

“And over billions of years, we think the sun stripped away almost all the air on Mars,” Thaller said.

At least that’s the theory the Maven spacecraft is being sent up to test.

Since Mars’ atmosphere is pretty much long gone, this is something of a forensic mission.

“We want to know what the culprit was. It’s kind of a CSI forensic investigation. What killed Mars?” said Thaller.

The Maven’s Monday liftoff will be followed by a 10-month journey before it arrives at Mars.

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