NASA Just Released New Details on Mars

November 5th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

What happened to the atmosphere in Mars? That's the question NASA researchers began to answer Thursday with new findings from the agency's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft mission, which pointed to solar winds that emanate from the sun and play a key role in eroding the planet's outer atmospheric layers.

The findings, announced in several studies, came from data collected by MAVEN's orbit of the red planet over the last year. The craft was able to observe how pieces of an ancient magnetic field reacted to a solar storm that sent gasses from the planet's upper atmosphere slithering out into space. Excited particles in those tendrils cause aurora lights similar to Earth's Northern Lights.

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Scientists said that the storms—which researchers believe were more frequent billions of years ago—and their especially deleterious effect on Mars' atmosphere could hint at why the planet, once warm and watery, became so desert-like.

Solar Winds and Mars

"Understanding what happened to the Mars atmosphere will inform our knowledge of the dynamics and evolution of any planetary atmosphere," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate. "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."

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Life on Mars?

The planet's atmosphere might once have been thick and warm enough to "support liquid water, which is a key ingredient and medium for life as we currently know it," according to Grunsfeld.

Scientists say that billions of years ago, the planet's atmosphere could have allowed for large bodies of water to exist, such as rivers, lakes, and even oceans. NASA researchers have recently observed traces of liquid and hydrated salts on the planet, though they say the current atmosphere is too cold and thin to support liquid in quantities the planet once likely had.

The MAVEN mission is slated to end its primary mission—to examine the amount of Mars water lost to space—later this month.