It has been a very busy and exciting year for the Mars Exploration Program. We’re closer than ever before to understanding Mars, our nearest neighbor. NASA’s latest press conference has revealed even more news about the history and current state of the Red Planet, and seems to confirm theories raised by recent discoveries there. This new information makes it increasingly likely that man is on track to set foot on Mars, and NASA still hopes to be there by 2030.
The latest news relates to findings by MAVEN – the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution program. The probe was launched in 2013 and reached Mars in September 2014, where it has been collecting data ever since. Scientists have been working hard to analyze those findings, and research from the first six months has driven NASA’s announcement. The project has turned up some exciting new information about the atmosphere and structure of Mars, and provided clues to its history and current state. Combined with other recent findings including water and methane, the evidence is pointing to a Mars visit in the very foreseeable future.
What is MAVEN and what does it do?
MAVEN is an orbiting probe which uses a series of instruments to record and analyze the atmosphere of Mars. It collects data about the planet’s magnetic, electric and ionic levels and tracks changes in the planet which could give us clues to current or historic life there. The high-tech craft looks at the top level of Mars’ atmosphere, and has been working to discover what changed the climate of the dry, cold planet.
NASA have already established that Mars once had a very different landscape to the barren, featureless desert it appears to be today. The ground-based Curiosity Rover and orbiting Odyssey have sent back photographs which show us vast valleys, cliffs and river beds. Solid ice is also present in the surface of Mars. It is very likely that Mars once looked a lot like Earth, with wide oceans and green continents – but you wouldn’t know it today. Somewhere along the line, Mars changed into the desolate, arid world it is now; MAVEN’s mission is to figure out why and how this happened, and what that atmosphere is like today.
What has MAVEN revealed about Mars’ atmosphere?
The atmosphere on Mars is thought to be very toxic to humans. The oxygen has been depleted, carbon dioxide levels are higher but still lacking, and the thin layer left on the planet does little to block the Sun’s harmful radiation. If Mars really was just like us, it must once have had a similar dense atmosphere – where have those ions gone, and why? MAVEN has uncovered the answer.
The Earth’s dense, life-supporting atmosphere is protected by the magnetic field that surrounds us. Mars differs from us in that it doesn’t have much of a magnetosphere. There is some magnetic activity in the south of the planet, but not enough to repel the Sun’s harmful actions. MAVEN has worked out how solar activity affects Mars, confirming the theory that the atmosphere has been lost over time.
When the solar winds – charged particles from the Sun – approach Mars, they are met with slight resistance from the planet’s gravitational pull and thin remaining gases. This causes a shockwave in the air that surrounds the planet and moves over it. The solar winds don’t quite make it to the surface of Mars, but they do hit the top level of the atmosphere pretty hard. The solar particles erode away at that outer strata, causing atmospheric gases to escape and become lost to outer space.
The probe also discovered patterns in the way those ions are escaping. The loss of particles is notably slow at most points, and doesn’t really account for the major climate shift Mars has seen. However, MAVEN did note that a solar storm made a big difference and accelerated the loss. Scientists are able to conclude that solar activity is the cause of Mars’ atmospheric decline.
What does this mean for our understanding of Mars’ history?
So, we have learned that solar storms have a big impact on planetary atmosphere and that magnetic fields are vital protection against the Sun’s activity. However, solar storms are a relatively rare event in today’s settled, aged universe and the observed atmospheric loss doesn’t account for such a dramatic visible climate change on the planet itself. The MAVEN team are confident that they have the answer to this puzzle as well.
Back in the early days of the universe, over 3 billion years ago, the Sun was relatively new and fairly volatile. It emitted far greater heat and power than it does today, and violent solar storms were far more frequent as a result. The star would have been far more active when it was young, and those solar winds could really take their toll on a small planet like Mars. If the planet’s magnetic field failed early in the solar system’s existence, it may well have fallen victim to a systematic erosion by a lively, active star’s behavior.
Today, the calmer Sun’s effects on Mars are lessened, although the planet still takes a regular beating from those highly charged solar winds. We can see from the geological evidence just what effect this has had on the landscape of Mars: the landscape that once supported oceans is now bare and depleted.
Does this mean Mars is inhospitable?
The atmosphere on Mars is approximately 1% of that on Earth. We rely on the air around us to live, and Mars certainly doesn’t have the oxygen we have to breathe to survive. Theories suggest we could create our own once we arrive by introducing Earth plants to create oxygen, but research on this is limited until we can set foot on the planet ourselves.
Those potentially radioactive solar winds are also a risk if we did make it to Mars. Could the thin atmosphere on Mars provide protection against the Sun, or would any life form sent there become sick as a result? This is another unknown that NASA scientists will have to take on board as they strive to put boots on the Red Planet.
Despite these challenges, the odds of us reaching Mars are good. We may not be able to interact with the environment in the way we first expected, but all the evidence shows that Mars is not too different from Earth: it’s just much further along in its life cycle. This work by MAVEN confirms many of the findings other Mars Exploration Program teams have given us this year, and builds a much clearer picture of the planet’s history and current state.
Where does the discovery of water fit in?
Earlier this year, NASA announced that liquid water had been detected on Mars. This finding rocked the scientific community, because it suggests humans could actually exist there one day. It also greatly increases the chance of finding life there. Samples collected by Curiosity have suggested the water is salty, which keeps it from freezing on the subzero planet. The little trickles that remain could be all that is left the great oceans which shaped Mars’ landscape.
The atmosphere on Mars is just like its water supply. They exist, but in far lesser quantities than they once did. That thinning atmosphere does just enough to keep precipitation of sorts happening, with reports in other missions of ‘snow’ at high points and acidic mists spotted in other areas. While it is unlikely that we could reverse the conditions on Mars, they might just offer enough for space explorers to work with. Perhaps we could even generate our own oxygen one day: the presence of water is a big step in the right direction if we want to cultivate plant life.
Are we any closer to visiting Mars?
Visiting another planet would be a dream come true for many, and the world has become very excited about Mars since getting there started to look realistic. NASA claims that by 2030, they will be ready to send humans to Mars for the first time. That’s less than two decades. The challenges of getting there are many and varied: there are still a lot of unknowns, and the logistics don’t quite work. We need to be able to travel a lot faster, use a lot less fuel and face the possibility that our first Earth visitors to Mars may not be able to return.
Despite knowing return is unlikely, demand to see Mars is high. International company Virgin recently raised the possibility of selling one-way Mars flights to the public, and around a hundred respondents snapped up the chance. The journey there and back would take more than the average lifetime so a return journey is not included – but the chance to spend that lifetime having an interplanetary experience certainly proved popular.
It’s safe to say that heading to Mars is firmly on the agenda for NASA, and they’ve discovered plenty to make it look possible. Until then, the MEP probes and rovers will continue to work on establishing the structure of Mars, and showing us new evidence to confirm or dispute long-held theories and speculations.
Could the same atmospheric loss happen to Earth?
Mars is very similar to Earth in a lot of ways, so there’s a lot we can learn about the future of our planet. It isn’t unreasonable to wonder if we’re headed the same way. We know that our own atmosphere is escaping and thinning, and environmental concerns are higher on everyone’s agenda than ever before. Could our own atmosphere vanish into space and strip our own planet of its resources and life forms?
It seems unlikely that we will suffer the same fate any time soon, because the Earth benefits from the protection of a steady magnetosphere. Our magnetic field surrounds us and repels those harsh solar winds, which could otherwise create the Mars effect around our own planet. A mystery that remains unsolved amid the MAVEN findings is why Mars lost its own magnetic field – or if it ever had one. We assume that it must have once been like us, but perhaps there is another answer. MAVEN will continue to orbit Mars for many months to come, and a further six months of data are already available to analysis teams.
However, we could consider the lessons Mars teaches as a warning. If the Earth’s core were to cool and our electromagnetic effect to reduce, perhaps we would suffer the same fate. It never hurts to be careful, and these discoveries might start to drive environmental change here on Earth as well as provoking new advances in science and engineering.
Where do NASA go from here?
What we can conclude with certainty is that NASA are making huge breakthroughs and uncovering more about our closest neighbor than we’ve ever known before. 2015 has been an incredibly exciting year for space exploration, and these discoveries are sure to fuel a strong desire in many to learn more.
With so many concurrent projects working furiously to reveal what Mars is all about, you’ll want to keep a close eye on NASA in the coming months. Their 4k UHD TV channel is the place to catch updates and news, and the most exciting discoveries are announced in press conferences which can also be streamed through the channel. We’ll also be keeping you up to date with the latest in space travel news, and tracking developments in the journey to reach Mars.
90's girl with a love of retro games and old school consoles - currently in the market for a working Commodore 64...
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