Mars: Where did the atmosphere go?

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With its coppery red color and the mysteries surrounding it, Mars has always been a fascinating planet; it has been an object of interest and study for years and years. It is believed that Mars at one point in its existence was once a planet covered with water, and therefore, one that could have supported life. Today, however, Mars is a frozen desert, but evidence of water has been discovered in the form of salty brine that shows up during the Martian summer. Nevertheless, even with the discovery of water, the atmosphere on Mars is too thin and does not contain enough oxygen to support life as we know it.

This, however, has not stopped people from thinking about terraforming Mars. Terraforming is a process where an unhospitable and hostile environment is transformed and changed into an environment where human life can be sustained. The idea of transforming one of the planets in our solar system has been one much discussed and imagined in the science fiction world. Some scientists do believe that it could become a reality and that Mars, a planet that is evidenced to have once supported life, could somehow be transformed to become a suitable life sustaining environment once again.

This is why it is important to study Mars to see what happened to make it change so drastically. By finding out what happened, scientists could be able to find ways to reverse the process and terraform Mars. The cold surface temperatures will have to be raised and the currently thin atmosphere will have to be replenished.

The MAVEN spacecraft was built to do specifically that: study Mars’ atmosphere. NASA’s MAVEN was launched in 2014, equipped with the technology needed to analyze the atmosphere and to reach a conclusive answer of how the Martian atmosphere became so thin. The two contesting hypotheses were that the atmosphere either escaped down or up.

If the atmosphere had escaped down, then that meant that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere became a carbonate on the surface of Mars, and that it could have been absorbed into rocks. However, if it has been locked on the surface, then scientists would have looked for ways to release it. If it had gone up, it meant that the carbon dioxide escaped out of the atmosphere, and that it was lost at space and not to be retrieved. On 5 November 2015, the MAVEN results were announced, and it so happened that the CO2 had escaped up.

Billions of years ago, Mars, like Earth, had a magnetic field that protected it from solar wind and sun explosions that would otherwise strip away its atmosphere. Mars had water and a thick atmosphere that was possible due to the protective magnetic field enveloping it. However, 4.2 billion years ago, that magnetic field shut down, leaving the Martian atmosphere vulnerable to the strong solar winds that collided with its atmosphere and ended up stripping it away leaving Mars a barren cold desert.

If not for our own magnetic field, we would have ended up like Mars; thankfully, we have not. One can actually see the protective effect of the Earth’s magnetic field by travelling to the Poles and witnessing the Aurora Borealis; the light display caused by the collision of the solar winds with the magnetic field.

So now, while the idea of terraforming Mars is not as doable as it was if the atmosphere had gone down—not that it was ever an easy feat—it still remains a possibility; albeit an extremely challenging one. The MAVEN mission is still going strong and there is no telling of the wealth of information it will be uncovering; for now, it did solve the mystery of where the Martian atmosphere had disappeared to.

Check out these videos to see more about MAVEN and to learn more about terraforming:

References

spaceflight101.com
www.scientificamerican.com
quest.nasa.gov

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