NASA’s MAVEN Orbiter Discovers Solar Wind Stripped Away Mars Atmosphere Causing Radical Transformation

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter mission has determined that ancient Mars suffered drastic climate change and lost its thick atmosphere and surface bodies of potentially life giving liquid water because it lost tremendous quantities of gas to space via stripping by the solar wind, based on new findings that were announced today, Nov. 5, at a NASA media briefing and in a series of scientific publications.

The process of Mars dramatic transformation from a more Earth-like world to its barren state today started about 4.2 Billion years ago as the shielding effect of the global magnetic field was lost as the planets internal dynamo cooled, Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Universe Today.

The radical transformation of ancient Mars from a warm world with significant bodies of standing water that could have supported life, to its current state as a cold, arid and desert-like world that’s rather inhospitable to life was caused by the loss of most the planet’s atmosphere as powerful streams of solar wind particles crashed into it and stripped it away due to the loss of the protective magnetic field as the planets core cooled.

“We think that the early magnetic field that Mars had would have protected the planet from direct impact by the solar wind and would have kept it from stripping gas off,” Jakosky told me.

“So it would have been the turn off of the magnetic field, that would have allowed the turn on of stripping of the atmosphere by the solar wind.”

“The evidence suggests that the magnetic field disappeared about 4.2 Billion years ago.”

The period of abundant surface water actively carving the Martian geology lasted until about 3.7 Billion years ago. The loss of the atmosphere by stripping of the solar wind took place from about 4.2 to 3.7 Billion years ago.

Billions of years ago, Mars was a very different world. Liquid water flowed in long rivers that emptied into lakes and shallow seas. A thick atmosphere blanketed the planet and kept it warm. Credit: NASA

With the release of today’s results, the MAVEN science team has accomplished the primary goal of the mission, which was to determine how and why Mars lost its early, thick atmosphere and water over the past four billion years. The atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide.

Since water is a prerequisite for life as we know it, determining its fate and longevity on Mars is crucial for determining the habitability of the Red Planet and its potential for supporting martian microbes, past of present if they ever existed.

“The NASA Mars exploration program has been focused on finding water,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

“Water is the prime ingredient needed for life. It is a major factor in the climate and for shaping geology. And it is a critical resource for future human exploration.”

NASA’s goal is to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ during the 2030s.

This NASA video shows a visualization of the solar wind striking Mars:

Video caption: Created using data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, this visualization shows how the solar wind strips ions from the Mars’ upper atmosphere into space. Credits: NASA-GSFC/CU Boulder LASP/University of Iowa

MAVEN arrived in orbit at Mars just over one year ago on Sept. 21, 2014.

The $671 Million MAVEN spacecraft’s goal is to study Mars tenuous upper atmosphere in detail for the very first time by any spacecraft and to explore the mechanisms of how the planet lost its atmosphere and life giving water over billions of years as well as determine the rate of atmospheric loss.

The new MAVEN data have enabled researchers to measure the rate of Mars atmospheric loss of gas to space via the action of solar wind stripping as well as the erosional effect of solar storms.

Based on measurements from MAVEN’s suite of nine state-of-the-art scientific instruments, the solar wind is stripping away gas at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second today, in the form of carbon dioxide and oxygen, said David Brain, MAVEN co-investigator at LASP.

“Most of the stripping [of the Martian atmosphere] by the solar wind at Mars was thought to have taken place very early in the history of the solar system when the sun was much more active and when the solar wind was more intense. So today the rate of loss at Mars is low,” Jakosky said at the briefing.

“Today’s Mars is a cold dry desert-like environment. The atmosphere is thin and it’s not capable of sustaining liquid water at the surface today, it would freeze or evaporate very quickly. However when we look at ancient Mars we see a different type of surface, one that had valleys that looked like they were carved by water and lakes that were standing for long periods of time. We see an environment that was much more able to support liquid water.”

The MAVEN results were published today in nearly four dozen scientific papers in the Nov. 5 issues of the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

I asked Jakosky; How much gas would have been lost from ancient Mars and what is the rough estimate for the ancient rate of loss to arrive at Mars thin atmosphere today?

“For the amount of gas that we think you would have to have been removed – let me start with the current Mars atmosphere which has a thickness of 6 millibars, that’s just under 1% as thick as the Earth’s atmosphere,” Jakosky replied.

“So we think you would have to remove an amount of gas that is about equivalent to what’s in Earth’s atmosphere today.”

“So the rate would have to have been a factor of about 100 to 1000 times higher, than today’s loss of 100 grams per second in order to have removed the gas early in that time period, which is consistent with what the models have predicted that the loss rate would have been back then in early history.”

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft celebrated one Earth year in orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2015. MAVEN was launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: NASA

What is the solar wind and how does it strip away the atmosphere?

“The solar wind is a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the sun’s atmosphere at a speed of about one million miles per hour. The magnetic field carried by the solar wind as it flows past Mars can generate an electric field, much as a turbine on Earth can be used to generate electricity. This electric field accelerates electrically charged gas atoms, called ions, in Mars’ upper atmosphere and shoots them into space,” according to a NASA description.

MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and is due to blastoff on Nov. 18 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars. Credit: Ken Kremer/

MAVEN is just now completing its primary mission and starts the extended mission phase on Nov. 16.

The 5,400 pound MAVEN probe carries nine sensors in three instrument suites to study why and exactly when did Mars undergo the radical climatic transformation.

MAVEN’s observations will be tied in with NASA’s ongoing Curiosity and Opportunity surface roving missions as well as MRO and Mars Odyssey to provide the most complete picture of the fourth rock from the sun that humanity has ever had.

MAVEN thundered to space on Nov. 18, 2013 following a flawless blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 atop a powerful United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter, chief scientist Prof. Bruce Jakosky of CU-Boulder and Ken Kremer of Universe Today inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, 2013. MAVEN launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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