The enduring, and maybe endearing, mystery around Mars is what happened to its water? We can say with near-certainty now, thanks to the squad of Mars rovers and orbiters, that Mars was once much wetter. In fact that planet may have had an ocean that covered a third of the surface. But what happened to it all?
As it turns out, the global dust storms that envelop Mars, and in particular the most recent one that felled the Opportunity rover, may offer an explanation.
The ancient climate of Mars is a mystery to scientists. Even with all we’ve learned about Mars, it’s still difficult to explain how lakes and rivers existed. A new study shows that Martian rivers were swollen with runoff and that they flowed far later into the planet’s history than previously thought.
The question is, how did the Martian climate create these conditions?
On October 19th, 2016, the European Space Agency’s Exobiology on Mars (ExoMars) mission established orbit around Mars. Consisting of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, the purpose of this mission is to investigate Mars for past signs of life. And whereas the Schiaparelli unfortunately crashed during deployment, the TGO has managed to begin its mission ahead of schedule.
A few weeks ago, the satellite achieved a near circular orbit around Mars after performing a series of braking maneuvers. Since that time, the orbiter’s Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) took a stunning image of the surface. This picture was not only the TGO’s first image of Mars, it was also a test to see if the orbiter is ready to being its main mission on April 28th.
The image captured a 40 km- (25 mi) long segment of the Korolev Crater, which is located high in Mars’ northern hemisphere. The image was a composite of three images in different colors that were taken simultaneously on April 15th, 2018, which were then assembled to produce this color image. The bright material that appears at the edge of the crater is water ice.
As Antoine Pommerol, a member of the CaSSIS science team working on the calibration of the data, explained in a recent ESA press release:
“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was given the lighting conditions. It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”
Prior to the test phase, the camera team transmitted new software to the TGO, and after a few minor issues, they determined that the instrument was ready to work. The camera is one of four instruments on the TGO, which also carries two spectrometer suites and a neutron detector. The spectrometers began their science mission on April 21st by taking the first sample of the atmosphere to see how its molecules absorb sunlight.
By doing this, the TGO hopes to determine the chemical composition of Mars atmosphere and find evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes. Eventually, the camera will help characterize features on the surface that could be related to trace gas sources. Hence the importance of this recent test.
“We aim to fully automate the image production process,” said Nicolas Thomas, the camera’s principal investigator from the University of Bern. “Once we achieve this, we can distribute the data quickly to the science community for analysis.”
A lot of challenges lie ahead, which includes a long period of data collection to bring out the details of rare (or yet to be discovered) trace gases in Mars’ atmosphere. This is necessary since trace gases (as the name would suggest) are present in only very small amounts – i.e. less than 1% of the volume of the planet’s atmosphere. But as Håkan Svedhem – the ESA’s TGO project scientist – indicated, the test image was a good start.
“We are excited to finally be starting collecting data at Mars with this phenomenal spacecraft,” he said. “The test images we have seen so far certainly set the bar high.”
By 2020, the second part of the ExoMars mission is scheduled to launch. This will consist of a Russian surface platform and a European rover landing on the surface in support of a science mission that is expected to last into 2022 or longer. Alongside NASA’s proposed Mars 2020 rover, the Red Planet is due to have several more visitors in the coming years!
Every planet in our Solar System interacts with the stream of energetic particles coming from our Sun. Often referred to as “solar wind”, these particles consist mainly of electrons, protons and alpha particles that are constantly making their way towards interstellar space. Where this stream comes into contact with a planet’s magnetosphere or atmosphere, it forms a region around them known as a “bow shock”.
These regions form in front of the planet, slowing and diverting solar wind as it moves past – much like how water is diverted around a boat. In the case of Mars, it is the planet’s ionosphere that provides the conductive environment necessary for a bow shock to form. And according to a new study by a team of European scientists, Mars’ bow shock shifts as a result of changes in the planet’s atmosphere.
For many decades, astronomers have been aware that bow shocks form upstream of a planet, where interaction between solar wind and the planet causes energetic particles to slow down and gradually be diverted. Where the solar wind meets the planet’s magnetosphere or atmosphere, a sharp boundary line is formed, which them extends around the planet in a widening arc.
This is where the term bow shock comes from, owing to its distinctive shape. In the case of Mars, which does not have a global magnetic field and a rather thin atmosphere to boot (less than 1% of Earth’s atmospheric pressure at sea level), it is the electrically-charged region of the upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) that is responsible for creating the bow shock around the planet.
At the same time, Mars relatively small size, mass and gravity allows for the formation of an extended atmosphere (i.e. an exosphere). In this portion of Mars’ atmosphere, gaseous atoms and molecules escape into space and interact directly with solar wind. Over the years, this extended atmosphere and Mars’ bow shock have been observed by multiple orbiter missions, which have detected variations in the latter’s boundary.
This is believed to be caused by multiple factors, not the least of which is distance. Because Mars has an relatively eccentric orbit (0.0934 compared to Earth’s 0.0167), its distance from the Sun varies quite a bit – going from 206.7 million km (128.437 million mi; 1.3814 AU) at perihelion to 249.2 million km (154.8457 million mi; 1.666 AU) at aphelion.
When the planet is closer, the dynamic pressure of the solar wind against its atmosphere increases. However, this change in distance also coincides with increases in the amount of incoming extreme ultraviolet (EUV) solar radiation. As a result, the rate at which ions and electrons (aka. plasma) are produced in the upper atmosphere increases, causing increased thermal pressure that counteracts the incoming solar wind.
Newly-created ions within the extended atmosphere are also picked up and accelerated by the electromagnetic fields being carried by the solar wind. This has the effect of slowing it down and causing Mars’ bowshock to shift its position. All of this has been known to happen over the course of a single Martian year – which is equivalent to 686.971 Earth days or 668.5991 Martian days (sols).
However, how it behaves over longer periods of time is a question that was previously unanswered. As such, the team of European scientists consulted data obtained by the Mars Express mission over a five year period. This data was taken by the Analyser of Space Plasma and EneRgetic Atoms (ASPERA-3) Electron Spectrometer (ELS), which the team used to examine a total of 11,861 bow shock crossings.
What they found was that, on average, the bow shock is closer to Mars when it is near aphelion (8102 km), and further away at perihelion (8984 km). This works out to a variation of about 11% during the Martian year, which is pretty consistent with its eccentricity. However, the team wanted to see which (if any) of the previously-studied mechanisms was chiefly responsible for this change.
Towards this end, the team considered variations in solar wind density, the strength of the interplanetary magnetic field, and solar irradiation as primary causes – are all of which decline as the planet gets farther away from the Sun. However, what they found was that the bow shock’s location appeared more sensitive to variations in the Sun’s output of extreme UV radiation rather than to variations in solar wind itself.
The variations in bow shock distance also appeared to be related to the amount of dust in the Martian atmosphere. This increases as Mars approaches perihelion, causing the atmosphere to absorb more solar radiation and heat up. Much like how increased levels of EUV leads to an increased amount of plasma in the ionosphere and exosphere, increased amounts of dust appear to act as a buffer against solar wind.
As Benjamin Hall, a researcher at Lancaster University in the UK and the lead author of the paper, said in an ESA press release:
“Dust storms have been previously shown to interact with the upper atmosphere and ionosphere of Mars, so there may be an indirect coupling between the dust storms and bow shock location… However, we do not draw any further conclusions on how the dust storms could directly impact the location of the Martian bow shock and leave such an investigation to a future study.”
In the end, Hall and his team could not single out any one factor when addressing why Mars’ bow shock shifts over longer periods of time. “It seems likely that no single mechanism can explain our observations, but rather a combined effect of all of them,” he said. “At this point none of them can be excluded.”
Looking ahead, Hall and his colleagues hope that future missions will help shed additional light on the mechanisms behind Mars shifting bowshock. As Hall indicated, this will likely involve “”joint investigations by ESA’s Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter, and NASA’s MAVEN mission. Early data from MAVEN seems to confirm the trends that we discovered.”
While this is not the first analysis that sought to understand how Mars’ atmosphere interacts with solar wind, this particular analysis was based on data obtained over a much longer period of time than any previously study. In the end, the multiple missions that are currently studying Mars are revealing much about the atmospheric dynamics of this planet. A planet which, unlike Earth, has a very weak magnetic field.
What we learn in the process will go a long way towards ensuring that future exploration missions to Mars and other planets that have weak magnetic fields (like Venus and Mercury) are safe and effective. It might even assist us with the creation of permanent bases on these worlds someday!
The study of another planet’s surface features can provide a window into its deep past. Take Mars for example, a planet whose surface is a mishmash of features that speak volumes. In addition to ancient volcanoes and alluvial fans that are indications of past geological activity and liquid water once flowing on the surface, there are also the many impact craters that dot its surface.
In some cases, these impact craters have strange bright streaks emanating from them, ones which reach much farther than basic ejecta patterns would allow. According to a new research study by a team from Brown University, these features are the result of large impacts that generated massive plumes. These would have interacted with Mars’ atmosphere, they argue, causing supersonic winds that scoured the surface.
These streaks were only visible in IR because it was only at this wavelength that contrasts in heat retention on the surface were visible. Essentially, brighter regions at night indicate surfaces that retain more heat during the day and take longer to cool. As Schultz explained in a Brown University press release, this allowed for features to be discerned that would otherwise not be noticed:
“You couldn’t see these things at all in visible wavelength images, but in the nighttime infrared they’re very bright. Brightness in the infrared indicates blocky surfaces, which retain more heat than surfaces covered by powder and debris. That tells us that something came along and scoured those surfaces bare.”
Along with Stephanie N. Quintana, a graduate student from DEEPS, the two began to consider other explanations that went beyond basic ejecta patterns. As they indicate in their study – which recently appeared in the journal Icarus under the title “Impact-generated winds on Mars” – this consisted of combining geological observations, laboratory impact experiments and computer modeling of impact processes.
Ultimately, Schultz and Quintana concluded that crater-forming impacts led to vortex-like storms that reached speeds of up to 800 km/h (500 mph) – in other words, the equivalent of an F8 tornado here on Earth. These storms would have scoured the surface and ultimately led to the observed streak patterns. This conclusion was based in part on work Schultz has done in the past at NASA’s Vertical Gun Range.
This high-powered cannon, which can fire projectiles at speeds up to 24,000 km/h (15,000 mph), is used to conduct impact experiments. These experiments have shown that during an impact event, vapor plumes travel outwards from the impact point (just above the surface) at incredible speeds. For the sake of their study, Schultz and Quintana scaled the size of the impacts up, to the point where they corresponded to the impact craters on Mars.
The results indicated that the vapor plume speed would be supersonic, and that its interaction with the Martian atmosphere would generate powerful winds. However, the plume and associated winds would not be responsible for the strange streaks themselves. Since they would be travelling just above the surface, they would not be capable of causing the kind of deep scouring that exists in the streaked areas.
Instead, Schultz and Quintana showed that when the plume struck a raised surface feature – like the ridges of a smaller impact crater – it would create more powerful vortices that would then fall to the surface. It is these, according to their study, that are responsible for the scouring patterns they observed. This conclusion was based on the fact that bright streaks were almost always associated with the downward side of a crater rim.
As Schultz explained, the study of these streaks could prove useful in helping to establish that rate at which erosion and dust deposition occurs on the Martian surface in certain areas:
“Where these vortices encounter the surface, they sweep away the small particles that sit loose on the surface, exposing the bigger blocky material underneath, and that’s what gives us these streaks. We know these formed at the same time as these large craters, and we can date the age of the craters. So now we have a template for looking at erosion.”
In addition, these streaks could reveal additional information about the state of Mars during the time of impacts. For example, Schultz and Quintana noted that the streaks appear to form around craters that are about 20 km (12.4 mi) in diameter, but not always. Their experiments also revealed that the presence of volatile compounds (such as surface or subsurface water ice) would affect the amount of vapor generated by an impact.
In other words, the presence of streaks around some craters and not others could indicate where and when there was water ice on the Martian surface in the past. It has been known for some time that the disappearance of Mars’ atmosphere over the course of several hundred million years also resulted in the loss of its surface water. By being able to put dates to impact events, we might be able to learn more about Mars’ fateful transformation.
The study of these streaks could also be used to differentiate between the impacts of asteroids and comets on Mars – the latter of which would have had higher concentrations of water ice in them. Once again, detailed studies of Mars’ surface features are allowing scientists to construct a more detailed timeline of its evolution, thus determining how and when it became the cold, dry place we know today!
Welcome back to our planetary weather series! Today, we take a look at Earth’s neighbor and possible “backup location” for humanity someday – Mars!
Mars is often referred to as “Earth’s Twin”, due to the similarities it has with our planet. They are both terrestrial planets, both have polar ice caps, and (at one time) both had viable atmospheres and liquid water on their surfaces. But beyond that, the two are quite different. And when it comes to their atmospheres and climates, Mars stands apart from Earth in some rather profound ways.
For instance, when it comes to the weather on Mars, the forecast is usually quite dramatic. Not only does Martian weather vary from day to day, it sometimes varies from hour to hour. That seems a bit unusual for a planet that has an atmosphere that is only 1% as dense as the Earth’s. And yet, Mars manages to really up the ante when it comes to extreme weather and meteorological phenomena.
Mars has a very thin atmosphere which is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen, along with traces of oxygen and water. The atmosphere is quite dusty, containing particulates that measure 1.5 micrometers in diameter, which is what gives the Martian sky its tawny color when seen from the surface. Mars’ atmospheric pressure ranges from 0.4 to 0.87 kPa, which is the equivalent of about 1% of Earth’s at sea level.
Because of this thin atmosphere, and its greater distance from the Sun, the surface temperature of Mars is much colder than what we experience here on Earth. The planet’s average temperature is -63 °C (-82 °F), with a low of -143 °C (-226 °F) during the winter at the poles, and a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator.
Due to the extreme lows in temperature at the poles, 25-30% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere freezes and becomes dry ice that is deposited on the surface. While the polar ice caps are predominantly water, the Martian North Pole has a layer of dry ice measuring one meter thick in winter, while the South Pole is covered by a permanent layer that is eight meters deep.
Trace amounts of methane and ammonia have also been detected in the Martian atmosphere. In the case of the former, it has an estimated concentration of about 30 parts per billion (ppb), though the Curiosity rover detected a “tenfold spike” on December 16th, 2014. This detection was likely localized, and the source remains a mystery. Similarly, the source of ammonia is unclear, though volcanic activity has been suggested as a possibility.
Mars is also famous for its intense dust storms, which can range from small tornadoes to planet-wide phenomena. Instances of the latter coincide with dust being blown into the atmosphere, causing it to be heated up from the Sun. The warmer dust-filled air rises and the winds get stronger, creating storms that can measure up to thousands of kilometers in width and last for months at a time. When they get this large, they can actually block most of the surface from view.
Due to its thin atmosphere, low temperatures and lack of a magnetosphere, liquid precipitation (i.e. rain) does not take place on Mars. Basically, solar radiation would cause any liquid water in the atmosphere to disassociate into hydrogen and oxygen. And because of the cold and thin atmosphere, there is simply not enough liquid water on the surface to maintain a water cycle.
Occasionally, however, thin clouds do form in the atmosphere and precipitation falls in the form of snow. This consists primarily of carbon dioxide snow, which has been observed in the polar regions. However, small traces of frozen clouds carrying water have also been observed in Mars’ upper atmosphere in the past, producing snow that is restricted to high altitudes.
One such instance was observed on September 29th, 2008, when the Phoenix lander took pictures of snow falling from clouds that were 4 km (2.5 mi) above its landing site near the Heimdal Crater. However, data collected from the lander indicated that the precipitation vaporized before it could reach the ground.
Aurorae on Mars:
Auroras have also been detected on Mars, which are also the result of interaction between magnetic fields and solar radiation. While Mars has little magnetosphere to speak of, scientists determined that aurorae observed in the past corresponded to an area where the strongest magnetic field is localized on the planet. This was concluded by analyzing a map of crustal magnetic anomalies compiled with data from Mars Global Surveyor.
A notable example is the one that took place on August 14th, 2004, and which was spotted by the SPICAM instrument aboard the Mars Express. This aurora was located in the skies above Terra Cimmeria – at geographic coordinates 177° East, 52° South – and was estimated to be quite sizable, measuring 30 km across and 8 km high (18.5 miles across and 5 miles high).
More recently, an aurora was observed on Mars by the MAVEN mission, which captured images of the event on March 17th, 2015, just a day after an aurora was observed here on Earth. Nicknamed Mars’ “Christmas lights”, they were observed across the planet’s mid-northern latitudes and (owing to the lack of oxygen and nitrogen in Mars’ atmosphere) were likely a faint glow compared to Earth’s more vibrant display.
To date, Mars’ atmosphere, climate and weather patterns have been studied by dozens of orbiters, landers, and rovers, consisting of missions by NASA, Roscomos, as well as the European Space Agency and Indian federal space program. These include the Mariner 4 probe, which conducted the first flyby of Mars – a two-day operation that took place between July 14th and 15th, 1965.
The crude data it obtained was expanded on by the later later Mariner 6 and 7 missions (which conducted flybys in 1969). This was followed by the Viking1 and 2 missions, which reached Mars in 1976 and became the first spacecraft to land on the planet and send back images of the surfaces.
In the future, several additional missions are scheduled to reach the Red Planet, which are expected to teach us even more about its atmosphere, climate and weather patterns. What we find will reveal much about the planet’s deep past, its present condition, and perhaps even help us to build a future there.
Finding atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is very difficult to do, which explains why it’s been 40 years since it was last detected. In the 1970’s, NASA’s Viking and Mariner missions detected Martian atmospheric oxygen, and now, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has detected atomic oxygen in the upper portion of the Martian atmosphere called the mesosphere.
SOFIA is a specially modified Boeing 747 aircraft which carries a 100 inch telescope. It flies at altitudes between 37,000 to 45,000 feet, which puts it above most of the moisture in Earth’s atmosphere. This moisture would otherwise block the infrared radiation that SOFIA “sees.”
“Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure,” said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist. “To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer. SOFIA provides both capabilities.”
A special detector on board SOFIA, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT) allowed researchers to distinguish Martian atmospheric oxygen from Earthly oxygen. SOFIA-GREAT only detected half the amount of oxygen that scientists expected to find, which is probably due to changes and variations in the atmosphere. These results were published in a 2015 paper in Astronomy and Astrophysics.
Atomic oxygen has a strong effect on Mars’ atmosphere because it affects how other gases escape the atmosphere. It’s extreme volatility means it bonds with nearby molecules very easily; oxygen will combine with almost all chemical elements, except for the noble gases.
SOFIA is the largest airborne observatory in the world, and is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center. SOFIA has a 20 year mission timeline. Researchers will continue using SOFIA to study the Martian atmosphere, in order to better understand the variations in oxygen content.
SOFIA is not the only mission with eyes on Mars’ atmosphere. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) was launched in 2013 to explore the upper atmosphere of Mars, and how it’s affected by the solar wind. It’s thought that Mars’ atmosphere was much thicker in the past, and has been stripped away over time. Atomic oxygen played a role in Mars’ escaping atmosphere in the past, and no doubt will play a role in the future. SOFIA and other missions like MAVEN will hopefully shed some light on Mars’ past and future atmospheres.
Special Guest: Mike Massimino, Former Astronaut; Senior Advisor for Space Programs at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum; Full-time instructor at Columbia University; Human-machine systems, space robotics, and human space flight.
Remember a few weeks ago when the weather on Mars was making the news? At the time, parts of the Red Planet was experiencing temperatures that were actually warmer than parts of the US. Naturally, there were quite a few skeptics. How could a planet with barely any atmosphere which is farther from the Sun actually be warmer than Earth?
Well, according to recent data obtained by the Curiosity rover, temperatures in the Gale Crater reached a daytime high of -8 °C (17.6 °F) while cities like Chicago and Buffalo were experiencing lows of -16 to -20 °C (2 to -4 °F). As it turns out, this is due to a number of interesting quirks that allow for significant temperature variability on Mars, which at times allow some regions to get warmer than places here on Earth.
It’s no secret that this past winter, we here in North America have been experiencing a bit of a record-breaking cold front. This was due to surges of cold air pushing in from Siberia and the North Pole into Canada, the Northern Plains and the Midwest. This resulted in many cities experiencing January-like weather conditions in November, and several cities hitting record-lows not seen in decades or longer.
For instance, the morning of November 18th, 2014, was the coldest since 1976, with a national average temperature of -7 °C (19.4 °F). That same day, Detroit tied a record it had set in 1880, with a record low of -12 °C (11 °F).
Five days earlier, the city of Denver, Colorado experienced temperatures as cold as -26 °C (-14 °F) while the city of Casper, Wyoming, hit a record low of -33 °C (-27 °F). And then on November 20th, the town of Jacksonville, Florida broke a previous record (which it set in 1873) with an uncharacteristic low of -4° C (25 °F).
Hard to believe isn’t it? Were it not for the constant need for bottled oxygen, more people might consider volunteering for Mars One‘s colonizing mission – which, btw, is still scheduled to depart in 2023, so there’s still plenty of time register! However, these comparative figures manage to conceal a few interesting facts about Mars.
For starters, Mars experiences an average surface temperature of about -55 °C (-67 °F), with temperatures at the pole reaching as low as a frigid -153 °C (-243.4 °F). Meanwhile, here on Earth the average surface temperature is 7.2 °C (45 °F), which is also due to a great deal of seasonal and geographic variability.
In the desert regions near the equator, temperature can get as high as 57.7 °C, with the hottest temperature ever recorded being 70.7 °C (158.36 °F) in the summertime in the desert region of Iran. At the south pole in Antarctica temperatures can reach as low as -89.2 °C (-128.6 °F). Pretty darn cold, but still balmy compared to Mars’ polar ice caps!
Also, since its arrival in 2012, the Curiosity Rover has been rolling around inside Gale Crater – which is located near the planet’s equator. Here, the planet’s temperature experiences the most variability, and can reach as high as 20 °C (68 °F) during midday.
And last, but not least, Mars has a greater eccentricity than all other planet’s in the Solar System – save for Mercury. This means that when the planet is at perihelion (closest to the Sun) it is roughly 0.28 AUs (42.5 million km) closer than when it is at aphelion (farthest from the Sun). Having just passed perihelion recently, the average surface temperatures on Mars can vary by up to an additional 20 ºC.
In short, Mars is still, and by far, the colder of the two planets. Not that it’s a competition or anything…