Image of the Day: MAVEN heads for Mars

This rather bland looking rocket is hauling the MAVEN spacecraft to Mars, so this is the very last view of it that any human will ever get. There was a bit of a scare back in October when the government shutdown looked like it was going to blow the whole thing, but MAVEN is now on its way, and there's no turning back.

The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft will reach Mars late next September, whereupon it'll start sniffing around Mars' upper atmosphere in an attempt to figure out where all of the planet's volatiles (the gasses that help keep Earth so pleasant) went. Scientists estimate that Mars has lost something like 99 percent of its atmosphere, and knowing why and how that happened has the potential to teach us about the evolution of Earth, as well as what kinds of exoplanets might have atmospheres of their own.

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