Mars and Venus are surprisingly similar

Mar 05, 2008
Mars and Venus are surprisingly similar
Venus Express is studying largely unknown phenomena in the Venusian atmosphere like never before. Its suite of instruments is also digging into the interaction between the solar wind and the planetary environment. In addition, the mission is gathering glimpses of the planet's surface, which is strictly coupled with its dense atmosphere. Credits: ESA (Image by AOES Medialab)

Using two ESA spacecraft, planetary scientists are watching the atmospheres of Mars and Venus being stripped away into space. The simultaneous observations by Mars Express and Venus Express give scientists the data they need to investigate the evolution of the two planets’ atmospheres.

Scientists call this work comparative planetology. Mars Express and Venus Express are so good at it because they carry very similar science instruments. In the case of the Analyser of Space Plasmas and Energetic Atoms (ASPERA), they are virtually identical. This allows scientists to make direct comparisons between the two planets.

The new results probe directly into the magnetic regions behind the planets, which are the predominant channels through which electrically-charged particles escape. They also present the first detection of whole atoms escaping from the atmosphere of Venus, and show that the rate of escape rose by ten times on Mars when a solar storm struck in December 2006.

By observing the current rates of loss of the two atmospheres, planetary scientists hope that they will be able to turn back the clock and understand what they were like in the past. “These results give us the potential to measure the evolution of planetary climates,” says David Brain, Supporting Investigator for plasma physics for Venus Express and Co-Investigator for ASPERA on Mars and Venus Express at the University of California, Berkeley.

The new observations show that, despite the differences in size and distance from the Sun, Mars and Venus are surprisingly similar. Both planets have beams of electrically charged particles flowing out of their atmospheres. The particles are being accelerated away by interactions with the solar wind, a constant stream of electrically charged particles released by the Sun.

At Earth, the solar wind does not directly interact with the atmosphere. It is diverted by Earth’s natural cloak of magnetism. Neither Mars nor Venus have appreciable magnetic fields generated inside the planet, so each planet’s atmosphere suffers the full impact of the solar wind.

Interestingly, this full-on interaction does create a weak magnetic field that drapes itself around each planet and stretches out behind the night-side in a long tail. Venus’s atmosphere is thick and dense, whereas that of Mars is light and tenuous. Despite the differences, the magnetometer instruments have discovered that the structure of the magnetic fields of both planets are alike.

“This is because the density of the ionosphere at 250 km altitude is surprisingly similar,” says Tielong Zhang, Principal Investigator for the Venus Express magnetometer instrument at Institut für Weltraumforschung (IWF), Österreiche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Austria. The ionosphere is the surrounding shell of electrically-charged particles created by the impact of sunlight on the planet’s upper atmosphere.

The proximity of Venus to the Sun does create an important difference, however. The solar wind thins out as it moves through space so the closer to the Sun it is encountered, the more concentrated is its force. This creates a stronger magnetic field, making the escaping atmospheric particles move collectively like a fluid.

At Mars, the weaker field means that the escaping particles act as individuals. “This is a fundamental difference between the two planets,” says Stas Barabash, ASPERA Principal Investigator on both Mars Express and Venus Express, Swedish Institute of Space Physics.

Another illuminating difference between Mars and Venus is that Mars displays strong small-scale magnetic fields locked into the crust of the planet. In some regions, these pockets protect the atmosphere, in others they actually help funnel the atmosphere into space.

The complexity of the different processes revealed at Venus and Mars means that planetary scientists do not yet have the full picture. “There will be many more results to come,” says Barabash.

There is a lot to do because there are many different mechanisms that may cause the atmospheric particles to escape. Untangling it all will take time. “The longer the spacecraft work together, the longer we can watch and see what really happens,” says Brain.

Source: European Space Agency

Explore further: Elon Musk gets fresh challenge with space contract

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mars Express and Venus Express operations extended

Feb 27, 2007

ESA's Mars Express and Venus Express missions, to explore our nearest neighbour planets Mars and Venus respectively, will continue to operate until early-May 2009. The decision was unanimously taken by ESA's ...

Recommended for you

Lunar explorers will walk at higher speeds than thought

3 hours ago

Anyone who has seen the movies of Neil Armstrong's first bounding steps on the moon couldn't fail to be intrigued by his unusual walking style. But, contrary to popular belief, the astronaut's peculiar walk ...

Space: The final frontier... open to the public

4 hours ago

Historically, spaceflight has been reserved for the very healthy. Astronauts are selected for their ability to meet the highest physical and psychological standards to prepare them for any unknown challenges. However, with ...

NASA releases IRIS footage of X-class flare (w/ Video)

4 hours ago

On Sept. 10, 2014, NASA's newest solar observatory, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, mission joined other telescopes to witness an X-class flare – an example of one of the strongest solar flares—on ...

NASA's Maven spacecraft reaches Mars this weekend

5 hours ago

Mars, get ready for another visitor or two. This weekend, NASA's Maven spacecraft will reach the red planet following a 10-month journey spanning 442 million miles (711 million kilometers).

User comments : 0