The Mystery of Mars' Missing Atmosphere May Finally Be Solved

Monday, 04 June 2018 - 12:01PM
Astronomy
Mars
Sun
Monday, 04 June 2018 - 12:01PM
The Mystery of Mars' Missing Atmosphere May Finally Be Solved
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Image credit: YouTube

Right now, we're pretty sure that Mars had liquid water on its surface at one point and that it was probably hospitable to life.

 

In fact, it seems Mars was a lot more Earth-like than we initially expected—at least one study has claimed the Red Planet even had an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

 

So what happened to all that?

 

Well, thanks to NASA's MAVEN satellite and some very lucky timing, we may have an answer:

 

Massive solar flares from our Sun may have messed with the atmosphere and allowed Mars' oxygen to escape.



On September 10, 2017, the Sun saw one of the biggest solar flares in its 11-year cycle, a X8.2 class.

 

To understand just how huge that is, you have to realize that NASA's solar flare classifications go from A (the weakest) to X (the strongest), and each step up the alphabet is 10 times stronger than the previous letter.

 

This means that a C flare is 20 times stronger than an A, and so on.

 

Sometimes, though, a flare goes off the charts and has to be given an X class with an additional multiplier, like X5.

 

The September 10 flare was pretty impressive at X8.2, but the strongest flare ever recorded was over X28.

 

Still, the X8.2 flare poured 82,000 times the Sun's normal amount of X-rays into space, and Mars bore the brunt of it.



Luckily for NASA's MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) project, their satellite was in the right place at the right time to measure the effects on Mars' atmosphere.

 

Scientists managed to observe new interactions between the upper layers of Mars' atmosphere, the thermosphere and ionosphere and found that oxygen was able to escape parts of the atmosphere at a rate 50 percent higher than normal.

 

If repeated over millions of years, this kind of phenomenon could have slowly changed the composition of Mars' atmosphere and drained it of oxygen, turning it into the barren, dusty wasteland we know today.



Equally exciting is the fact that this is the first time we've gotten a close-up picture of solar flares impacting Mars, allowing scientists to study the effects of solar radiation in much better detail.

 

With colonization plans on the horizon, that's a big deal for anyone who wants to try their hand at having children on the Red Planet.

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