Despite decades of exploration and study, Mars still has its fair share of mysteries. In particular, scientists are still trying to ascertain what happened to the water that once flowed on Mars’ surface. Unfortunately, billions of years ago, the Martian atmosphere began to be stripped away by the solar wind, which also resulted in the loss of its surface water over time – although it was not entirely clear where it went and what mechanisms were involved.
To address this, a team of scientists recently consulted data obtained by three orbiter missions studying the Martian atmosphere. In the process, they found evidence that the smaller regional dust storms that happen almost annually on Mars are making the planet drier over time. These findings suggest that storms are a major driving force behind the evolution of Mars’ atmosphere and its transition to the freezing and desiccated place we know today.
According to new research that appeared in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience, the larger of Mars’ two moons (Phobos) has an orbit that takes it through a stream of charged particles (ions) that flow from the Red Planet’s atmosphere. This process has been taking place for billions of years as the planet slowly lost its atmosphere, effectively establishing a record of Martian climate change on Phobos’ surface.
This research has provided yet another incentive for landing a mission on Phobos, something that has never been done successfully. In essence, this mission could gather sample data that would allow scientists to study this record more closely. In the process, they would be able to learn a great deal more about how Mars went from being a warmer world with liquid water to the extremely arid and cold environment it is today.
There’s a surprising phenomenon taking place in Mars’ atmosphere: during the spring and fall seasons on the Red Planet, large areas of the sky pulse in ultraviolet light, exactly three times every night.
Even though Earthling scientists are studying Mars intently, it’s still a mysterious place.
One of the striking things about Mars is all of the evidence, clearly visible on its surface, that it harbored liquid water. Now, all that water is gone, and in fact, liquid water couldn’t survive on the surface of the Red Planet. Not as the planet is now, anyway.
But it could harbour water in the past. What happened?
Water. It’s always about the water when it comes to sizing up a planet’s potential to support life. Mars may possess some liquid water in the form of occasional salty flows down crater walls, but most appears to be locked up in polar ice or hidden deep underground. Set a cup of the stuff out on a sunny Martian day today and depending on conditions, it could quickly freeze or simply bubble away to vapor in the planet’s ultra-thin atmosphere.
Evidence of abundant liquid water in former flooded plains and sinuous river beds can be found nearly everywhere on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover has found mineral deposits that only form in liquid water and pebbles rounded by an ancient stream that once burbled across the floor of Gale Crater. And therein lies the paradox. Water appears to have gushed willy-nilly across the Red Planet 3 to 4 billion years ago, so what’s up today?
Blame Mars’ wimpy atmosphere. Thicker, juicier air and the increase in atmospheric pressure that comes with it would keep the water in that cup stable. A thicker atmosphere would also seal in the heat, helping to keep the planet warm enough for liquid water to pool and flow.
Different ideas have been proposed to explain the putative thinning of the air including the loss of the planet’s magnetic field, which serves as a defense against the solar wind.
Convection currents within its molten nickel-iron core likely generated Mars’ original magnetic defenses. But sometime early in the planet’s history the currents stopped either because the core cooled or was disrupted by asteroid impacts. Without a churning core, the magnetic field withered, allowing the solar wind to strip away the atmosphere, molecule by molecule.
Solar wind eats away the Martian atmosphere
Measurements from NASA’s current MAVEN mission indicate that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second. “Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator.
The team first considered the effects of CO2, an obvious choice since it comprises 95% of Mars’ present day atmosphere and famously traps heat. But when you take into account that the Sun shone 30% fainter 4 billion years ago compared to today, CO2 alone couldn’t cut it.
“You can do climate calculations where you add CO2 and build up to hundreds of times the present day atmospheric pressure on Mars, and you still never get to temperatures that are even close to the melting point,” said Robin Wordsworth, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at SEAS, and first author of the paper.
Carbon dioxide isn’t the only gas capable of preventing heat from escaping into space. Methane or CH4 will do the job, too. Billions of years ago, when the planet was more geologically active, volcanoes could have tapped into deep sources of methane and released bursts of the gas into the Martian atmosphere. Similar to what happens on Saturn’s moon Titan, solar ultraviolet light would snap the molecule in two, liberating hydrogen gas in the process.
When Wordsworth and his team looked at what happens when methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide collide and then interact with sunlight, they discovered that the combination strongly absorbed heat.
Carl Sagan,American astronomer and astronomy popularizer, first speculated that hydrogen warming could have been important on early Mars back in 1977, but this is the first time scientists have been able to calculate its greenhouse effect accurately. It is also the first time that methane has been shown to be an effective greenhouse gas on early Mars.
When you take methane into consideration, Mars may have had episodes of warmth based on geological activity associated with earthquakes and volcanoes. There have been at least three volcanic epochs during the planet’s history — 3.5 billion years ago (evidenced by lunar mare-like plains), 3 billion years ago (smaller shield volcanoes) and 1 to 2 billion years ago, when giant shield volcanoes such as Olympus Monswere active. So we have three potential methane bursts that could rejigger the atmosphere to allow for a mellower Mars.
The sheer size of Olympus Mons practically shouts massive eruptions over a long period of time. During the in-between times, hydrogen, a lightweight gas, would have continued to escape into space until replenished by the next geological upheaval.
“This research shows that the warming effects of both methane and hydrogen have been underestimated by a significant amount,” said Wordsworth. “We discovered that methane and hydrogen, and their interaction with carbon dioxide, were much better at warming early Mars than had previously been believed.”
I’m tickled that Carl Sagan walked this road 40 years ago. He always held out hope for life on Mars. Several months before he died in 1996, he recorded this:
” … maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to, is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”
Mars’ atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, but there’s still a lot going on in that wispy, carbon dioxide Martian air. The MAVEN spacecraft recently took some exceptional images of Mars using its Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS), revealing dynamic and previously invisible subtleties.
MAVEN took the first-ever images of nightglow on Mars. You may have seen nightglow in images of Earth taken by astronauts on the International Space Station as a dim greenish light surrounding the planet. Nightglow is produced when oxygen and nitrogen atoms collide to form nitric oxide. This is ionized by ultraviolet light from the Sun during the day, and as it travels around to the nightside of the planet, it will glow in ultraviolet.
“The planet will glow as a result of this chemical reaction,” said Nick Schneider, from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, speaking today at the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences meeting. “This is a common planetary reaction that tells us about the transport of these ingredients and around the planet and show how winds circulate at high altitudes.”
MAVEN’s images show evidence of strong irregularities in Mars’ high altitude winds and circulation patterns and Schneider said these first images will lead to an improved understanding of the circulation patterns that control the behavior of the atmosphere from approximately 37 to 62 miles (about 60 to 100 kilometers) high.
MAVEN’s ultraviolet images also provide insight into cloud formation and ozone in Mars atmosphere.
The images show how water ice clouds form, especially in the afternoon, over the four giant volcanoes on Mars in the Tharsis region. Cloud formation in the afternoon is a common occurrence on Earth, as convection causes water vapor to rise.
“Water ice clouds are very common on Mars and they can tell us about water inventory on the planet,” Schneider said. “In these images you can see an incredible expansion of the clouds over the course of seven hours, forming a cloud bank that must be a thousand miles across.”
He added that this is just the kind of info scientists want to be plugging in to their circulation models to study circulation and the chemistry of Mars’ atmosphere. “This is helping us advance our understanding in these areas, and we’ll be able to study it with MAVEN through full range of Mars’ seasons.”
Schneider explained that MAVEN’s unique orbit allows it to get views of the planet that other orbiters don’t have. One part of its elliptical orbit takes it high above the planet that allows for global views, but it still orbits fast enough to get multiple views as Mars rotates over the course of a day.
“We get to see daily events evolve over time because we return to that orbit every few hours,” he said.
In addition, dayside ultraviolet imagery from the spacecraft shows how ozone amounts change over the seasons. Ozone is destroyed when water vapor is present, so ozone accumulates in the winter polar region where the water vapor has frozen out of the atmosphere. The images show ozone lasting into spring, indicating that global winds are constraining the spread of water vapor from the rest of the planet into winter polar regions.
Wave patterns in the ozone images show wind pattern, as well, helping scientists to study the chemistry and global circulation of Mars’ atmosphere.
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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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.
Martian auroras will never best the visual splendor of those we see on Earth, but have no doubt. The Red Planet still has what it takes to throw an auroral bash. Witness the latest news from NASA’s MAVEN atmospheric probe.
In December 2014, it detected widespread auroras across Mars’ northern hemisphere dubbed the “Christmas Lights”. If a similar display happened on Earth, northern lights would have been visible from as far south as Florida.
“It really is amazing,” says Nick Schneider who leads MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument team at the University of Colorado. “Auroras on Mars appear to be more wide ranging than we ever imagined.”
Study the map and you’ll see the purple arcs extend to south of 30° north latitude. So what would Martian auroras look like to the human eye? Would we see an arcade of nested arcs if we faced east or west from 30°N? Well, er, yes, if you could see into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Mars’ atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide, so most of the auroral emissions occur when high speed solar wind particles ionize CO2 moleculesand carbon monoxide to produce UV light. Perhaps properly suited-up bees, which can see ultraviolet, would be abuzz at the sight.
That’s not the end of the story however. Martian air does contain 0.13% oxygen, the element that puts the green and red in Earth’s auroras. The “Christmas Lights” penetrated deeply into Mars’ atmosphere, reaching an altitude of just 62 miles (100 km) above its surface. Here, the air is relatively thicker and richer in oxygen than higher up, so maybe, just maybe Christmas came in green wrapping.
Nick Schneider, who leads MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument team, isn’t certain but thinks it’s possible that a diffuse green glow could appear in Mars’ sky during particularly energetic solar storms.
While the solar wind produces auroras at both Earth and Mars, they originate in radically different ways. At Earth, we’re ensconced in a protective planet-wide magnetic field. Charged particles from the Sun are guided to the Earth’s poles by following a multi-lane freeway of global magnetic field lines. Mars has no such organized, planet-wide field. Instead, there are many locally magnetic regions. Particles arriving from the Sun go where the magnetism takes them.
“The particles seem to precipitate into the atmosphere anywhere they want,” says Schneider. “Magnetic fields in the solar wind drape across Mars, even into the atmosphere, and the charged particles just follow those field lines down into the atmosphere.”
Maybe one day, NASA or one of the other space agencies will send a lander with a camera that can shoot long time exposures at night. We’ll call it the “Go Green” initiative.
Just a day after skywatchers at mid- to upper-latitudes around the world were treated to a particularly energetic display of auroras on the night of March 17 as a result of an intense geomagnetic storm, researchers announced findings from NASA’s MAVEN mission of auroral action observed on Mars – although in energetic ultraviolet wavelengths rather than visible light.
Detected by MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument over five days before Dec. 25, 2014, the ultraviolet auroras have been nicknamed Mars’ “Christmas lights.” They were observed across the planet’s mid-northern latitudes and are the result of Mars’ atmosphere interacting directly with the solar wind.
While auroras on Earth typically occur at altitudes of 80 to 300 kilometers (50 to 200 miles) and occasionally even higher, Mars’ atmospheric displays were found to be much lower, indicating higher levels of energy.
“What’s especially surprising about the aurora we saw is how deep in the atmosphere it occurs – much deeper than at Earth or elsewhere on Mars,” said Arnaud Stiepen, IUVS team member at the University of Colorado. “The electrons producing it must be really energetic.”
To a human observer on Mars the light show probably wouldn’t be very dramatic, though. Without abundant amounts of oxygen and nitrogen in its thin atmosphere a Martian aurora would be a dim blue glow at best, if not out of the visible spectrum entirely.
This isn’t the first time auroras have been spotted on Mars; observations with ESA’s Mars Express in 2004 were actually the first detections of the phenomenon on the Red Planet. Made with the spacecraft’s SPICAM ultraviolet spectrometer, the observations showed that Mars’ auroras are unlike those found anywhere else in the Solar System in that they are generated by particle interactions with very localized magnetic field emissions, rather than a globally-generated one (like Earth’s).
(So no, it’s not a total surprise… but it’s still very cool!)
In addition to auroras MAVEN also detected diffuse but widespread dust clouds located surprisingly high in the Martian atmosphere. It’s not yet understood what process is delivering dust so high – 150-300 kilometers up (93-186 miles) – or if it is a permanent or temporary feature.