[/caption]I think that one of the most interesting questions that have been posed of late is ‘what is Mar’s atmosphere made of?’ There has been a great deal of study done on this topic and interest is increasing since the discovery of methane, a possible indicator of life.
The atmosphere of Mars is over 95% carbon dioxide, 95.32% to be exact. The breakdown of gases goes like this:
The Martian atmosphere has four main layers: lower, middle, upper, and exosphere. The lower atmosphere is a warm region(around 210 K). It is warmed by airborne dust(1.5 micrometers across) and heat radiated from the surface. This airborne dust gives the planet its ruddy brown appearance. The middle atmosphere is features a jetstream similar to Earth’s. The upper atmosphere is heated by the solar wind and the temperatures are much higher than at the surface. This heat separates the gases. The exosphere starts at about 200 km and has no clear end. It just tapers off into space.
The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere freezes for part of the year and may drop to the surface. As much as 25% of the atmospheric carbon dioxide condenses at the polar caps into solid ice(dry ice) because the Martian poles are not exposed to sunlight during the planet’s winter. When the poles are again exposed to sunlight, the ice returns to its gas form and rises back into the atmosphere. So, a significant annual variation in the atmospheric pressure and atmospheric composition around the Martian poles.
The methane mentioned earlier is used to show the possibility of life on Mars. While it is a byproduct of life, it is also a result of volcanism, geothermal process, and hydrothermal activity. Methane is an unstable gas, so there has to be a source on the planet that is constantly replenishing it. It has to be a very active source, because studies have shown that the methane is destroyed in less than on Earth year. It is thought that peroxides and perchlorates in the soil or that it condenses and evaporates seasonally from clathrates.
Now you answer ‘ what is Mar’s atmosphere made of?’ the next time it comes up. You can be sure that the methane component will continue to be studied by rovers, orbiters, and, in the future, astronauts.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Mars. Listen here, Episode 52: Mars.
NASA Mars Fact Sheet