Mars spacecraft MAVEN, with Colorado-built instruments, launches to Mars

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Launch of Atlas V MAVEN from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. November 18, 2013

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — You may have heard it before: Billions of years ago, Mars probably looked more like Earth does now, with clouds and oceans and a much thicker atmosphere. It may even have had some type of microbes. But now it’s a barren, frozen desert.

So what happened? Where did the air and water go?

NASA is sending a spacecraft to try to find out. It’s called MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, and it launched successfully Monday morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  It’s the first mission dedicated to studying the red planet’s upper atmosphere.

STORY: Boulder kindergartners win national contest, their artwork heading to Mars

“We expect to learn how the modern Mars works, really in detail. To see its climate state, to understand how the atmosphere is lost to space — how Mars may have lost a magnetic field — to take that information and map it back in time,” said NASA’s James Garvin.

It will take 20 months to reach Mars. It’s scheduled to arrive on Sept. 22, 2015.

The solar-powered probe is about the length of school bus — 37.5 feet — and will weighed about 5,410 pounds at launch.

“MAVEN will fill in a very big gap in our understanding of the planet by exploring the upper atmosphere and its influence on the Martian environment,” principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, from the University of Colorado, says on his NASA webpage.

He says he’s “excited that we’re providing one step along the path of answering questions about whether life ever existed on Mars.”

Jakosky’s team will use the spacecraft’s three instrument suites in hopes of determining three things about Mars:

• The composition of its upper atmosphere
• How fast it’s losing what’s left of its atmosphere
• The history of the atmosphere

MAVEN won’t make a cool, daring landing like the Mars Curiosity Rover, which has been roaming Mars for more than a year now. Instead, it will orbit between a low of about 93 miles above the surface to a high of about 3,728 miles. It also will make five dives, flying as low as 77 miles in altitude.

NASA says the mission will cost $671 million.

There was a watch party at CU’s Boulder campus to celebrate MAVEN.

“My heart was just thumping, watching it go off,” said student Sky Shaver.

CU-Boulder is the only university to have designed, built and launched instruments to every planet in the solar system.

CNN contributed to this story.

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