Mission to Mars to investigate possibility of water past on the red planet

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(Photo: NASA MAVEN)NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars is set to arrive on Sept. 21 and begin a study of the planet’s atmosphere. One question scientists how to answer is: If Mars once had flowing water, then what happened to it?

The answer seems to lie in Mars’ thin atmosphere, which allows water to evaporate into space, according to Doug Duncan, director of the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder. At one point, Mars’ atmosphere was thick enough to protect the water on the dusty, cold planet. However, scientists believe that over time the planet’s low level of gravity and the impact of solar winds depleted the atmosphere.

The MAVEN mission will enter Mars’ orbit to analyze the atmosphere and test those theories. The MAVEN spacecraft was built in Littleton by Lockheed Martin, launched by Centennial’s United Launch Alliance, and is being run by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Duncan points out that people have long been fascinated by Mars. In the 1800s, Italian scientist Giovanni Schiaperelli saw channels on the planet, which many people misconstrued to be canals, implying the planet was inhabited. For decades, people wondered about the possibility of life on Mars and even feared invasion by “Martians.” Director Orson Welles took advantage of that fear when he produced the radio program, "The War of the Worlds," about a fictional Martian invasion in 1938.

Doug Duncan joins Ryan Warner monthly to talk about space and science.