After a recent spate of announcements about the Red Planet, NASA made a revelation about the Martian atmosphere this Thursday.
During a live stream NASA scientists revealed that new data showed how Mars used to be warm and wet before solar winds wore away its atmosphere, leaving the Red Planet dusty and barren, according to RT.
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MAVEN data informs new conclusions on Martian history
The data was collected by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which has been in orbit around the Red Planet since 2014 studying its atmosphere. At 2 PM Thursday NASA started a live stream during which scientists revealed that solar winds caused climate change which led to “the erosion of Mars’ atmosphere.”
MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky said that the spacecraft was designed to investigate climate change. Modern day Mars is cold and dry, incapable of sustaining water, while ancient Mars was most likely warmer and wetter, with a thicker atmosphere, said Jakosky.
“Mars lost its atmosphere. It could have been frozen out. It could have been turned into rocks, could have been knocked out by meteors, could have been stripped from the planet by solar wind. To answer, NASA sent the MAVEN mission to Mars,” NASA’s Mars Exploration Program lead scientist Michael Meyer said.
Is Earth in danger of suffering the same fate as Mars?
NASA scientists explained that the Earth is protected from solar winds, which can reach speeds of a million miles per hour, thanks to its hot core that generates a strong magnetic field. Mars does not have a core of the same heat and composition as that of the Earth, and is thus unprotected.
Solar winds were therefore able to strip away carbon and oxygen, which are very important for an atmosphere to be able to contain water. Solar particles stripped away ions from the upper atmosphere, allowing them to escape into space.
“Earth has a strong magnetic field that shields atmosphere from global wind. Its upper atmosphere can be stripped away into portions of space. Mars does not have such a large magnetic shield. Its atmosphere is small, but enough to protect surface from solar wind, deflecting it away,” said Jasper Halekas, MAVEN Solar Wind Ion Analyzer instrument lead at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.
New insights into climactic conditions on ancient Mars
Researchers believe that water used to flow across the surface of Mars, protected by a thick atmosphere. The situation changed when Mars’ magnetic field became significantly weaker during a time of intense solar activity, two factors which combined to strip away the atmosphere.
Between that moment and 3.7 billion years ago Mars became the barren planet that we are familiar with. According to NASA Mars is still losing its atmosphere at a rate of around a quarter pound of atoms per second.
During the live stream a question came in asking whether or not Earth was suffering the same loss of atmosphere. We are in fact losing atmospheric particles, but not at such a high rate thanks to our strong magnetic field. However there is still a possibility that we could lose our atmosphere if the Earth’s core cools down and the magnetic field becomes weaker.
What does the discovery mean for science?
For those of you wondering why the loss of the Martian atmosphere is so interesting, Jakosky says that it is vitally important for our understanding and quest to find extraterrestrial life. Given that Mars once boasted the right conditions for life, there may have been life on Mars.
“So it begs the question of whether there ever was any life there,” said Jakosky. “As we go into the future, these question about life and climate and the history of the planet as a whole really are at the center of exploration.”
In September NASA announced that there was still liquid water flowing on the surface of Mars at certain times of the year. The question is how much of the water that was present on ancient Mars escaped into space, or whether it is trapped in ice beneath the surface of the Red Planet today.
NASA is already planning a manned mission to Mars, and predicts that it could become a reality by the 2030s. Research into necessary technology is ongoing and the next generation Mars rover will test equipment that could provide oxygen for astronauts who make the journey to the Red Planet. There is plenty of work still to be done, but our knowledge of Mars is increasing rapidly.
How long will it be before mankind sets foot on the Red Planet?