Right now, a NASA space craft on its way to Mars. The mission is called Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN. Scientists hope this is something that could open a new window to life on Earth.
The space craft is traveling 445 million miles to the cold planet of Mars, and it will take ten months to arrive. It's not going to land on the red planet though, it will orbit around Mars studying its atmosphere.
The James Madison University planetarium was able to connect some of our community with NASA scientists to learn more about what is being researched beyond our planet and why.
Mars is now very different from Earth, but scientists believe that more than 3 billion years ago, the Earth and Mars were much more similar. Mars used to be a warm planet, much warmer than it is today. Evidence exists that says at one time there was water on Mars. It also used to have a magnetic field, like Earth does, but it does not have that magnetic field anymore. The MAVEN mission is trying to answer those questions.
NASA says this mission is like no other before, no one has explored how an atmosphere has changed over time. MAVEN is part of a series of missions to Mars that will continue through the years.
Dr. Jim Garvin with the Goddard Space Flight Center says the MAVEN mission is going to study the atmosphere around the planet.
"It's a synoptic mission, kind of like a weather satellite that will measure how Mars today, evolves and interacts with the solar wind."
Unlike the trip to the moon that took Apollo astronauts three days, the space craft to Mars will arrive in ten months. So why is a mission to Mars important to people on Earth?
Garvin says, "Because the way our planet works, it's really magical and it's a mystery. There's many connections to the evolution of how we see Earth evolve that we don't understand, and we need to look elsewhere and see if we can provide clues to our own evolution both from the past and into the future."
A unique teleconference linked the NASA scientists and our own community through the James Madison University Planetarium. This image is of the NASA scientists and engineers answering questions from the JMU Planetarium.
Charlotte and Derek Weaver are both interested in space, and astronomy. They got to ask NASA scientists and engineers their questions.
Charlotte Weaver is in the third grade.
She says, "I want to know how they launch it"
Derek Weaver is in seventh grade, and says, "I'd like to know if there's life on other planets."
The opportunity to connect the NASA scientists and engineers was a rare and unique one.
Chris Kaznosky is a science teacher in Shenandoah County, he says, "I want to see our next generation of kids, I like to see how interested they are in this and I'm glad they are."
Garvin says, "There are magical questions that MAVEN will answer that have a bearing on the history of our own planet."
Once the rocket enters into the Mars orbit, it will be there for a full Mars year, which is about one and three quarters of an Earth year. This way measurements can be taken during the entire trip Mars makes around the sun. According to NASA, data will be sent back twice a week. Once it's received, it will take a few weeks to get the raw, binary data to scientists. However, it will take a few months for that information to be released to the public.
You can view Mars in the sky.
The best viewing is about 2 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Look straight up and that is Jupiter. This image is from Spaceweather.com.
Continue looking about halfway down on the horizon, and you'll see the red glow, that's Mars.
It will keep looking bigger in the sky until April, which is when it's closest to earth.
For more details on the mission you can check out NASA's site at www.nasa.gov