A new study published recently by NASA has uncovered striking details about what might have gone wrong on Mars billions of years ago that triggered its transformation from a once habitable, moist, potentially life-supporting, Earth-like world to the cold, desolate, inhospitably arid wasteland we know today.
According to NASA, the sun may have destroyed much of the martian atmosphere eons ago, with its fiery solar winds blasting outward from the star and altering the fate of the red planet.
The study also elucidates how the planet’s nascent atmosphere may have begun to crumble during its early years, 4.5 billion years ago, possibly owing to its progressively disappearing magnetic field. As per statistics, currently the planet’s thinning atmosphere is only one percent as thick as Earth’s. The new study also offers compelling clues to the fate of the planet’s oceans, suggesting that they may have evaporated due to the planet’s withering atmosphere, gradually seeping out into space.
The sun consistently releases solar winds that travel at around 1 million miles per hour. These winds barely influence the Earth, owing to the planet’s formidable magnetic field. Conversely, given its rather non-existent magnetic field, Mars has remained exposed to the ferocity of recurring solar storms from the very outset. Their fiercely hostile winds are perpetually stealing away molecules of gas that constitute a staggeringly vulnerable martian atmosphere.
According to Bruce Jakosky, a researcher at the University of Colorado, the red planet may have been a hospitable place billions of years ago.
“It seems to have been a much more clement climate, a climate more suitable to sustaining life at the surface. Mars’ atmospheric gases are actually leaking into space at a rate about 100 grams per second. That doesn’t seem like much, but you add it up over a couple of billion years and it’s enough to remove the entire atmosphere. It would have taken a couple of hundred million years”
Solar wind is a destructive phenomenon. It constitutes a barrage of galvanized, charged particles discharged from the sun at prodigious velocity with temperatures as high as 1 million degrees Celsius. By definition, it comprises plasma, an ionized gas consisting of positive ions and free electrons in proportionate quantities. It is often active at low pressures, as in the upper atmosphere, and sometimes at very high temperatures, as in stars.
Solar wind is triggered by the blistering solar corona, the outermost layer of the stellar atmosphere, evermore soaring outward into deep space. The corona is identified with the perimeter of the sun, which is ordinarily apparent to the naked eye during a progressing solar eclipse. The ensuing impact of the winds has been strikingly catastrophic for the planet, with its markedly diminished atmospheric strength.
NASA commenced its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission aiming to investigate Mars’s upper atmospheric composition in rigorous detail. The upper atmosphere constitutes the portion of the atmosphere above the troposphere, comprising different layers, namely the mesosphere, the ionosphere, the thermosphere, and the exosphere. The mission employs a range of state-of-the-art equipment that obtains precise measurements while orbiting the red planet and has been ceaselessly circling around it for over a year.
Findings from the mission also reveal intriguingly colorful auroras evident across most of the planet’s northern hemisphere and colossal enough to envelop the entire planet. The study also explains how Mars’ version of the “Northern Lights” is more of a lasting phenomenon than that of the earth.
[Image Credit: ESA via Getty Images]