NASA's newest robotic explorer, Maven, rocketed toward Mars today on a quest to unravel the ancient mystery of the red planet's radical climate change. The Maven spacecraft is due at Mars next fall following a journey of more than 440 million miles. Scientists want to know why Mars went from being warm and wet during its first billion years to cold and dry today. The early Martian atmosphere was thick enough to hold water and possibly support microbial life. But much of that atmosphere may have been lost to space, eroded by the sun.
Maven set off through a cloudy sky this afternoon in its effort to provide answers. An unmanned Atlas V rocket put the spacecraft on the proper course for Mars, and launch controllers applauded and shook hands over the success. An estimated 10,000 NASA guests gathered for the launch, the most exciting one of the year from Cape Canaveral. The University of Colorado at Boulder, which is leading the Maven effort, was represented by a couple thousand people. "We're just excited right now and hoping for the best," said the university's Bruce Jakosky, principal scientist for Maven. (Read more Mars stories.)