NASA’s newest Mars probe is a mission 4 billion years in the making.
MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, will orbit the red planet to study its climate, which today is frigid and barren, encircled in an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. But 4 billion years ago, the planet looked much different, with an atmosphere much more like our own and liquid water covering much of the surface.
A new video from NASA animates the transition of this early Mars — filled with blue sky, rushing rivers and vast lakes — into the desert planet we see today. Fast-moving clouds are meant to imply the passage of time, according to a NASA release. Though results from the various rovers on Mars’ surface have prompted scientists to conclude that the planet back then could have been habitable to life, no signs of any such life have been found, and are not included in the video.
Scientists know Mars had liquid water based on surface features and mineral evidence. Mars would have had to be coated in as much as 1,640 feet of water planet-wide to explain the surface features, according to a NASA release, and in order to sustain so much water, it would have needed a much thicker atmosphere.
“The interiors of some impact craters have basins suggesting crater lakes, with many showing connecting channels consistent with water flows into and out of the crater,” Joseph Grebowsky, the mission’s project scientist, said in the release. “Minerals are present on the surface that can only be produced in the presence of liquid water.”
It’s not entirely clear how Mars lost its atmosphere, though one leading theory suggests that it’s linked to the disappearance of Mars’ magnetic field. Scientists hope MAVEN, which appears at the end of the video, will help us understand the planet’s dramatic change in climate. MAVEN is set to launch from Cape Canaveral on Monday.
MORE: Images from the Mars Rover