Mission possible


The Maven (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) probe launched this week is set to rendezvous with the red planet next September, after a 440-million-mile journey.

The spacecraft will travel an irregular orbit around Mars for a year. It will measure and study the gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and how the sun affects it. That will help answer the question that underlies all planetary missions: Could life have taken hold on another world?

Scientists seek to understand the disappearance of an atmosphere that was once thick enough to hold water, and possibly, microbial life. There are a lot of theories about how a relatively wet world became a cold and arid desert planet. MAVEN’s high-tech instruments will transmit a treasure trove of data.

Once again, NASA has designed a relatively inexpensive robotic mission that will yield priceless scientific data. Not bad for a $671 million investment.