NASA's MAVEN spacecraft reveals how Mars lost its atmosphere to space

NASA says this discovery is a significant step toward unraveling the mystery of Mars' past environments.

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft reveals how Mars lost its atmosphere to space
Image credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

New Delhi: New results from NASA's MAVEN spacecraft have revealed that solar wind and radiation were responsible for stripping the Martian atmosphere, transforming Mars from a planet that could have supported life billions of years ago into a frigid desert world.

NASA says this discovery is a significant step toward unraveling the mystery of Mars' past environments.

 

The findings showcased that about 65 per cent of the argon (a noble gas which is the third-most abundant gas in the Earth's atmosphere) that was ever in the atmosphere has been lost to space.

"We've determined that most of the gas ever present in the Mars atmosphere has been lost to space," said Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), University of Colorado in Boulder.

CO2 is of interest because it is the major constituent of Mars' atmosphere and because it's an efficient greenhouse gas that can retain heat and warm the planet.

"We determined that the majority of the planet's CO2 was also lost to space by sputtering. There are other processes that can remove CO2, so this gives the minimum amount of CO2 that's been lost to space,a explained Jakosky.

Liquid water, essential for life, is not stable on Mars' surface today because the atmosphere is too cold and thin to support it.

However, evidence such as features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that only form in the presence of liquid water indicates the ancient Martian climate was much different - warm enough for water to flow on the surface for extended periods.

There are many ways a planet can lose some of its atmosphere.

For example, chemical reactions can lock gas away in surface rocks, or an atmosphere can be eroded by radiation and a stellar wind from a planet's parent star.

The new result reveals that solar wind and radiation were responsible for most of the atmospheric loss on Mars, and the depletion was enough to transform the Martian climate.

The team made its estimate using data from the Martian upper atmosphere, which was collected by MAVEN's Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS). This analysis included measurements from the Martian surface made by NASA's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on board the Curiosity rover.

Earlier in 2015, MAVEN team members announced results that showed atmospheric gas is being lost to space today and described how atmosphere is stripped away.

(With IANS inputs)