NASA's MAVEN Probe Offers Clues Into Mystery of Mars' Atmosphere

Compelling evidence of why Mars lost so much of its atmosphere to space.

November 5, 2015, 2:19 PM

— -- NASA's understanding of Mars continues to deepen with new data released today that may explain why the Red Planet's atmosphere is so thin, cold and desolate.

During the one year that NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has been studying Mars, the spacecraft found solar flares are stripping away atoms in its atmosphere, particularly on the side of the planet facing the sun, according to a study published today in "Science."

A powerful solar ejection on March 8 also gave NASA the chance to capture stunning data, which shows the escape rate of atmosphere during solar storms is about 10 to 100 times normal rates, according to the study.

“Mars appears to have had a thick atmosphere warm enough to support liquid water which is a key ingredient and medium for life as we currently know it," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate said in a statement. "Understanding what happened to the Mars atmosphere will inform our knowledge of the dynamics and evolution of any planetary atmosphere. Learning what can cause changes to a planet’s environment from one that could host microbes at the surface to one that doesn’t is important to know, and is a key question that is being addressed in NASA’s journey to Mars."

Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN's principal investigator, was able to make the determination by monitoring Mars' magnetic field. During this time, instruments on board MAVEN found strong, rope-like tendrils rotating as far as 3,107 miles into space. Atmospheric ionization instruments were able to record spikes as the Martian ions spilled into space.

"When we look at the processes, we see many of them would have been greater in the past," Jakosky said at a news conference today. "When we account for the greater loss rates early in history, stripping by the solar wind was an important process in the changing climate of Mars."

Researchers said the findings are significant because they show how substantial atmospheric loss could have resulted in the early history of the solar system, with an increasing number of ions being stripped away during major solar events.

The announcement comes at an exciting time as NASA continues to push forward with its goal of studying -- and one day sending -- a manned mission to Mars.

In September, NASA officials announced traces of liquid water had been found on the planet. The findings came from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and raise the possibility there could be life -- or even microbes -- on the Red Planet.

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