Multicolor Mars! Speedy NASA Spacecraft Takes Pictures Just Hours After Arrival

Sure is fun to see the Red Planet in different colors! This is what the gases around the Red Planet’s atmosphere look like from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which did its first observations on Monday (Sept. 22) — just eight hours after arriving in orbit.

The goal of the spacecraft is to better understand how quickly gases are fleeing the Martian atmosphere, and here you can definitely see a difference between hydrogen (at left) and oxygen (second-to-left). Figuring out how fast the atmosphere escapes could help scientists learn why water appeared to flow freely on the Red Planet’s surface in the distant past.

The hydrogen gas is much lighter and surrounds the planet in a bigger cloud that is so huge it extends beyond the boundaries of the picture at left. The oxygen, which is heavier, is less prone to drifting away and stays closer to the planet. (All images were obtained from an altitude of 22,680 miles or 36,500 kilometers.)

An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center).

It is believed that the Sun’s radiation pushed hydrogen out of the Martian atmosphere in the planet’s past, thinning it over time. A thicker atmosphere would have allowed water to exist in gullies and perhaps even seas or oceans, but today the atmosphere is too thin for liquid water to survive in large quantities on the surface.

MAVEN is in a commissioning phase that will last until early November, although the spacecraft will take a time-out to do observations of Comet Siding Spring upon the object’s closest approach to the planet Oct. 19. So far, NASA does not believe the comet will pose a huge dust threat to the spacecraft, but MAVEN will be maneuvered to minimize exposure just in case.

Source: University of Colorado Boulder

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Recent Posts

No, This Isn’t a Doorway on Mars

A Mastcam image from the Mars Curiosity rover captures what looks like a doorway into…

3 hours ago

Congressional UFO Hearing Brings a Few Answers and More Questions

For the first time in more than half a century, Congress conducted a public hearing…

8 hours ago

Carbon-12 is an Essential Building Block for Life and Scientists Have Finally Figured Out How it Forms in Stars

Artist's impression of a red giant star. Their cores are cauldrons where carbon-12 is produced.…

8 hours ago

Merging Supermassive Black Holes Gives us a New Way to Measure the Universe

A team of astronomers from Columbia University has found a new way to probe the…

17 hours ago

Did a 5th Giant Planet Mess up the Orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune?

The solar system’s current planetary orbits seem stable, but that’s only because the planets have…

1 day ago

Astronomers Find a Star That Contains 65 Different Elements

Have you ever held a chunk of gold in your hand? Not a little piece…

1 day ago