A defenseless Mars is losing its atmosphere

NASA satellite observes solar wind tearing gas molecules from Red Planet

solar wind simulation

THINNING OUT  The solar wind (beige streaks) rips molecules from Mars’ atmosphere. Orange lines represent high energies of out­going ions, blue low.

NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

View the simulation

The Martian atmosphere’s not what it used to be. Solar winds bombard the planet, taking gas molecules (represented by colored streaks in the image above) with them. New measurements of atmospheric loss by NASA’s MAVEN probe should help scientists determine how a planet with rushing water and a temperate climate a few billion years ago transformed into a cold, dry desert.

Atmospheric “loss to space was a significant, if not dominant, process in changing the climate,” says MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado Boulder.

The key factor in the atmospheric demise is that unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have a global magnetic field (see illustrations below). As a result, the planet can’t protect itself from particles and plasma streaming from the sun. Mars loses about 100 grams of its atmosphere every second, MAVEN researchers report in the Nov. 6 Science.

MAGNETIC DEFENSE Mars (above left) has little magnetic shielding, allowing solar particles to shear off the planet’s atmosphere. Earth’s global magnetic field (above right) provides much more protection. NASA Scientific Visualization Studio, MAVEN Science Team; GSFC/NASA

While the sun steadily erodes Mars’ atmosphere, solar flares can take out relatively big chunks. After a flare in March, MAVEN noticed that the number of ions escaping the planet jumped by roughly a factor of 10. Such flares were probably more common and more intense in the past when the sun was younger and feistier, Jakosky notes, and might have sloughed off much of the atmosphere. 

BLOWN AWAY   Streams of oxygen ions escape the Martian atmosphere in this computer simulation. The highest energy ions (red) are funneled over Mars while lower energy ions (green) form a tail pointing away from the sun.

NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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