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NASA launches robotic explorer to Mars

  • NASA's Maven, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The spacecraft will orbit Mars and study the planet's upper atmosphere. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's newest robotic explorer, Maven, rocketed toward Mars on Monday 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.

"Hey, guys, we're going to Mars!" Maven's principal scientist, Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told reporters after liftoff.

Jakosky and others 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 afternoon sky in its bid 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.


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