NASA Detects Oxygen in Mars' Atmosphere

Wednesday, 11 May 2016 - 10:30AM
Space
Astrobiology
Mars
Wednesday, 11 May 2016 - 10:30AM
NASA Detects Oxygen in Mars' Atmosphere
NASA has just discovered oxygen in the Martian atmosphere, using an instrument onboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Oxygen has previously been detected on the Red Planet, but this is the first confirmation of the element's presence since the Viking and Mariner missions four decades ago.

But the long interval between observations doesn't necessarily say anything about the levels of oxygen on Mars, only that the gas is extremely difficult to detect. Our atmosphere has too much moisture to observe the particles from Earth, and we didn't have the technology necessary to accurately measure the associated wavelengths.

Opening quote
"Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure," SOFIA project scientist Pamela Marcum said in a statement. "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."
Closing quote

Using SOFIA's sensitive instruments and its airborne position (between 37,000 and 45,000 feet), NASA was able to find oxygen particles in the mesosphere, or the upper layer of the atmosphere. The researchers only found approximately half of the oxygen they were expecting, but they claim that that is likely due to the variations in Mars' atmosphere. As a result, they will continue to study the Martian atmosphere with SOFIA's equipment in order to discover whether there is more oxygen elsewhere on the Red Planet.

This is an exciting discovery in itself, since it will help researchers understand the Martian atmosphere and general environment. And we're clearly in the infancy of our Mars research, but it's possible that studies like these will answer our burning questions about Mars' habitability. Even though we found less oxygen than we were expecting, this is still extremely encouraging for the prospect of either recognizable alien life or permanent human outposts on the Red Planet.
Science
NASA
Space
Astrobiology
Mars

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