NASA Discovers What Happened to All the Water on Mars

Thursday, 05 November 2015 - 5:08PM
Space
Mars
Thursday, 05 November 2015 - 5:08PM
NASA Discovers What Happened to All the Water on Mars
Water might be present on Mars right now, but billions of years ago the Red Planet was a very, very different place to the barren wasteland it is now. The scientific community is in almost unanimous agreement that at some point in its history, Mars was a planet with lush greenery and more than enough water to sustain life. If you've been watching too much of Mark Watney's escapades in The Martian to imagine what that version of Mars might look like, this illustration informed by NASA scientists might help.

What Mars Looked Like 4 Billion Years Ago from Sci-News.com on Vimeo.



Opening quote
"Mars appears to have had a thick atmosphere warm enough to support liquid water which is a key ingredient and medium for life as we currently know it," said John Grunsfeld, of the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Understanding what happened to the Mars atmosphere will inform our knowledge of the dynamics and evolution of any planetary atmosphere. Learning what can cause changes to a planet's environment from one that could host microbes at the surface to one that doesn't is important to know, and is a key question that is being addressed in NASA's journey to Mars."
Closing quote

So what happened to turn Mars into the dust ball it is today? That's a question that NASA sent its MAVEN spacecraft to answer, and today they announced data gathered by MAVEN has given the strongest indication yet as to what stripped Mars of its atmosphere and water.

Over the last year, MAVEN has been orbiting Mars gathering masses of data on the planet's atmosphere, data that has now shown that Mars's atmosphere has been slowly stripped away by solar winds. The emphasis here should really be on the term "slowly" because as MAVEN's principal investigator, Bruce Jakosky reveals, this is a process that has unfolded over a huge length of time.

Opening quote
Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time. We've seen that the atmospheric erosion increases significantly during solar storms, so we think the loss rate was much higher billions of years ago when the sun was young and more active.
Closing quote

As the animation below shows, the highly charged particles emitted from the Sun don't make direct contact with Mars itself, but instead buffet the upper atmosphere much the way a sandblaster would strip the paint off of a round surface.


Considering it was only yesterday that we wrote about the White House's plans for potentially damaging solar storms, this news might sound alarming for all of us here on Earth, but there is very little reason for concern.

Unlike Mars, Earth has a molten iron core which generates a significant magnetic field around the planet. This magnetic field protects Earth and it's atmosphere from the majority of the damaging particles being emitted from the Sun, and it's a lack of such protection that has been the undoing of our planetary neighbor.


(Earth's Magnetic Field Protect Us Against Solar Winds - Credit: NASA GSFC)



Science
NASA
Space
Mars

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