NASA Reveals Solar Wind Turns Mars Into Cold, Arid Planet

Posted: Nov 6 2015, 4:54am CST | by , Updated: Nov 7 2015, 11:58pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

NASA Reveals Solar Wind Turns Mars into Cold, Arid Planet
Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet's upper atmosphere. Credits: NASA/GSFC

NASA has given solid proof of solar winds eroding the atmosphere of the red planet.

NASA has lent valuable clues as to the past and present of the planet Mars. Mars’ atmosphere has changed with the times. Basically solar activity devastated the climate of Mars. It had a sort of environment which might have once supported life forms.

But thanks to the sun and its depredations, what little water remained on the surface of Mars got depleted too. Nowadays mere traces of water remain.

A MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) Probe has been orbiting the planet since a year or so ago and it has given its findings. These findings appear in the November 5 issues of the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

“Mars appears to have had a thick atmosphere warm enough to support liquid water which is a key ingredient and medium for life as we currently know it,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“Understanding what happened to the Mars atmosphere will inform our knowledge of the dynamics and evolution of any planetary atmosphere. 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.”

The hefty Mars atmosphere was wiped clean by the solar winds about 4.2 to 3.7 billion years ago. Before that tragic time span, water was so common on Mars that it almost matched the conditions on earth. MAVEN mission measurements show that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams per second.

"Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"We've seen that the atmospheric erosion increases significantly during solar storms, so we think the loss rate was much higher billions of years ago when the sun was young and more active.”

In March 2015, a series of solar storms hit Mars’ atmosphere and MAVEN found that the atmospheric loss was accelerated.

Created using data from NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, this visualization shows how the solar wind strips ions from the Mars' upper atmosphere into space. Credits: NASA-GSFC/CU Boulder LASP/University of Iowa

Today, barely 1% of the atmospheric conditions exist on Mars. And even this remaining atmosphere is slowly undergoing erosion. While solar winds travel at the rate of a million miles per hour, the earth is saved from there depredation thanks to its magnetic field which acts like a shield.

The problem with Mars is that its magnetic field stopped functioning properly billions of years ago. Today it is a virtual wasteland. And way back then, the solar winds were pretty extreme too.

Mars had probably been bombarded by thick bubbles of energy from the sun. The rate at which Mars lost its atmospheric protection escalated to twice its normal level. When Christmas came along in 2014, Mars got hit by what was the equivalent of a giant thermonuclear explosion. This proceeded on a per hourly basis. The extreme solar winds that raged billions of years ago were even more deadly than this.

The erstwhile solar storm on Mars led to what looked like the Northern Lights. A blue-tinged aurora was visible from the north of the red planet. Such a thing has never really occurred on such a scale on our own planet.

Mars was like the earth too once upon a time. Its condition and situation led to it becoming an arid and barren desert where no signs of life could be seen for miles. The fact of the matter is that the effect was cumulative. Over time the very nature of the climate and topography changed so much that Mars was left unrecognizable. Today it is a dry planet with frigid temperatures.

"Solar-wind erosion is an important mechanism for atmospheric loss, and was important enough to account for significant change in the Martian climate,” said Joe Grebowsky, MAVEN project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“MAVEN also is studying other loss processes -- such as loss due to impact of ions or escape of hydrogen atoms -- and these will only increase the importance of atmospheric escape.”

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