Mars: Peering into past atmospherics

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  • Published: Aug 1, 2013
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: UV/Vis Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Mars: Peering into past atmospherics

UV image

An Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer will provide complementary data to the  Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) and other instruments aboard NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, which is destined for Mars and will measure the gas composition of the Red Planet to give us a clearer picture of its past. Credit: NASA

MAVEN over Mars

An Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer will provide complementary data to the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) and other instruments aboard NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, which is destined for Mars and will measure the gas composition of the Red Planet to give us a clearer picture of its past.

MAVEN - Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission - has a scheduled launch date of 18th November 2013 and is destined to explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. Specifically, NASA scientists hope that its analysis of volatile compounds, such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and water, and how they are lost from the Martian atmosphere will give them a picture of how the atmosphere has evolved over time pointing to its ancient climate, the historical presence of liquid water or otherwise and the big question whether the Red Planet as ever habitable, leaving other interplanetary investigations to determine ultimately whether there was ever life on Mars.

MAVEN is set to carry three instrument suites: the Particles and Fields Package, which contains six instruments for the characterisation of the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet. The Remote Sensing Package will determine global characteristics of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer will measure the composition and isotopes of neutral ions. Once at Mars, the instruments will collect a variety of data on the molecules and ions above the Red Planet.

Martian model

"The data could be used to build models showing how Mars has lost the majority of its atmosphere, a phenomenon that continues to be one of the planet's greatest mysteries," explains Paul Mahaffy of Goddard. The mass spectrometric data coupled with ultraviolet information could allow the scientists to reconstruct the historical conditions on the planet by showing how the current atmosphere and the various variables change over time. The researchers suggest that the critical information obtained might even allow them to simulate the current Martian atmosphere and its atmosphere stretching back billions of years.

"What we're doing is measuring the composition of the atmosphere as a measure of latitude, longitude, time of day and solar activities," Mahaffy adds. "We're trying to understand over billions of years how the atmosphere has been lost."

Planetary scientists do not yet understand how Mars lost the majority of its atmosphere, but their strong suspicion is that the solar wind is to blame, this highly energetic stream of particles simple grazes the atmosphere stripping countless molecules continually and hurling them into space. The Red Planet's lacks of a global magnetic field of the kind that thankfully protects planet Earth is not present on Mars.

Accurate atmospherics

If the models can accurately portray the Martian atmosphere billions of years ago, scientists might be able to answer critical questions like whether the atmosphere was once substantial enough to sustain liquid water on its surface and perhaps support life. Today, Mars appears to be a barren and chilling dustbowl with surface water existing only as ice.

"The big question is can the models help us understand the atmosphere back in time," Mahaffy says. "This is another part of the puzzle in understanding what [the] atmosphere is like that's intended to be solved by the MAVEN mission." The Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer will also measure gas composition.

"Both instruments get composition of the atmosphere and how it changes based on variables," Mahaffy adds. "Not only do the different instruments get different species, but we measure at different locations, and that's really helpful for understanding what the atmosphere is doing."

Team member Florence Tan says this fundamental scientific exploration cuts deep to humanity's desire to understand our place in an expanding universe. "The question of why only Earth to me is the big science question," Tan says. "Mars is a close neighbour, so we look at it from the point of view of finding organisms on Earth living in extreme conditions." The current inaccessibility of planets beyond the solar system that have an evocatively Earth-like appearance means probing our near neighbours is the way forward until interstellar space travel perhaps becomes a possibility in the distant future. Mahaffy adds that the Mars investigations take us one small step closer to answering the really big question: "Are we alone in the universe?" He adds that, "MAVEN is one step in that program for understanding life on early Mars, and we'll try to do everything we can to understand it."

Related Links

NASA Maven mission 2013

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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