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Spacecraft Sends 'Tantalizing' Information from Mars


In this artist concept provided by NASA, the MAVEN spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere.

In this artist concept provided by NASA, the MAVEN spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere.


Scientists working on the year-long American mission to explore Mars hope that it will “help solve the mystery of how the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere.”

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the scientists said they are surprised and excited by the amount and quality of the information the spacecraft MAVEN has provided so far.

MAVEN reached Mars in late September after a 10-month-long journey. It had traveled 711-million kilometers from Earth to the Red Planet.

NASA says MAVEN is the first spacecraft ever made to study the upper atmosphere of Mars. MAVEN will measure the rates at which gases leave the Martian atmosphere. Scientists hope the information the spacecraft gathers will help them learn how the climate of Mars has changed over time.

Scientists say carbon dioxide and water control the climate. They believe if they can discover the history of Mars over the past four billion years, they will come to understand how the planet changed “from a warm and wet climate to the cold, dry climate present today.”

Scientists began working on the project 11 years ago. One of the mission’s top scientists said the mission will look at “how the processes involving the sun and the solar wind affect the gas at the top of the atmosphere and strip it away to space.”

Bruce Jakosky leads the mission. He is a professor in the geological sciences department at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He said Tuesday that seven of the spacecraft’s eight instruments are already providing information to scientists. He says much more will be received from the instruments in the next few weeks.

“What we’re seeing so far is really just a tantalizing teaser of what’s to come.”

Even this early in the mission, when the instruments are only being tested, scientists now have the most complete picture of the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere that they have ever had. The instrument testing will continue for about two weeks. Scientists hope to begin the actual science mission early next month.

But Professor Jakosky says the quality of information already sent back from MAVEN is better than he and his colleagues expected they would get.

“I’m looking at the science team -- some here in the room with me, some distributed -- and just seeing an incredible number of really excited people that are, are just beside themselves with the quality of the data we’re seeing already. Just this morning my administrative assistant told me that for the first time in months she’s hearing me whistling again as I walk down the corridor. This is gonna really be an exciting mission and we’re, we’re just ready to get on with it.”

Five times during the mission, the spacecraft will move to 125 kilometers above the surface of the Red Planet. During these “deep-dip campaigns,” MAVEN will travel in an area where the upper and lower atmospheres meet. This will give scientists information about the differences between the two atmospheres.

The spacecraft will also try to find out if human beings can survive on Mars. The space agency is working on plans to send humans to the planet in the 2030s.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

This story was reported by VOA correspondent Christopher Cruise in Washington. He also wrote it for Learning English and narrated and produced the program. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

quality – n. how good or bad something is

journey – n. trip

atmosphere – n. the gases surrounding any star or planet

climate – n. the normal weather conditions of a place

instruments – n. tools or devices designed to do something or to make something

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