Reports from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission have indicated that the sun is stripping away Mar’s atmosphere through solarwinds.
Data collected from MAVEN has been calculated by researchers to determine that solarwinds strip away gas from Mars at 100 grams per second. It has been noted that the rate of erosion increases with solar storms.
All planets are impacted by these waves of charged particles, mostly made up of electrons and protons, known as solar winds. The particles stream out from the sun at about a million miles per hour. Earth has a strong global magnetic field - something that the Red Planet lacks. The magnetic field would shield the planet from direct impact by these charged particles.
NASA reported that a series of solar storms hit Mars in March 2015, accelerating the process.
Mars atmosphere is considerably thin, being only one one-hundredth that of Earth’s atmosphere. It is composed of 95% carbon dioxide, which is pulled from the air by chemical reactions with rocks to form carbonate minerals.
However, there is evidence that Mars once held liquid water. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) observed the presence of hydrated minerals found in features that resemble valleys carved by flowing water. The seasonal appearance of these minerals indicates that briny water may flow beneath the surface of the Red Planet. The atmosphere is currently too thin and too cold to support a large amount of water.
“Water is a game changer in terms of future missions,” said Laurie Cantillo of the Office of Communications at NASA.
The evidence of these features suggest that Mars may have once had a thick enough atmosphere to support an abundance of water, which leads to the question of life also once being supported. With the solar winds slowly stripping away at Mar’s atmosphere over the span of billions of years, this thick atmosphere has slowly dissipated.
“[MAVEN] certainly gives us information that Mars was once a warmer and wetter planet. [It] gives us an idea of where water or ice once was,” said Cantillo.
MAVEN was launched Nov. 18, 2013 and began examining Mar’s outer atmosphere Sep. 21, 2014. Its mission was to gather data in order for scientists to understand how the sun influenced the atmospheric changes of this dry planet. It completed its primary mission on Nov. 16. MAVEN will complete extended missions for additional information and will continue in orbit for an undetermined amount of time.
Cantillo stated that with this new information, it will give researchers more to keep in mind as NASA plans for the possibility of human exploration in the 2030s.