NASA mission asks why Mars has no atmosphere

Oct 07, 2010 By Robert Sanders
Artist's conception of MAVEN Mars orbiter. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA this week gave the green light to a mission to Mars that will seek to understand why and how the red planet lost its atmosphere 3-4 billion years ago.

Dubbed the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission, it is led by principal investigator Bruce Jakosky of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) and managed by David Mitchell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

More than half the instruments aboard the spacecraft, with a planned launch in late 2013, will be built at the University of California, Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) under the direction of MAVEN deputy-principal investigator Robert Lin.

"There's lots of evidence that in the past, Mars had running water, but to have running water you need a thick atmosphere, and that's gone now," said Lin, a UC Berkeley professor of physics and former director of the SSL.

During its planned one-year mission, MAVEN will collect evidence to support or refute the reigning theory that once Mars lost its magnetic field, the and solar storms scoured the atmosphere away.

"Once you lose your atmosphere, that's the end of any evolved life," Lin added. "This mission will also tell us what might happen to other planetary atmospheres, even Earth's, in the long run."

“A better understanding of the upper atmosphere and the loss of volatile compounds like carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and water to space is required to plug a major hole in our understanding of Mars,” said Jakosky, who is a professor in CU-Boulder's geological sciences department.

MAVEN will carry three instrument suites, totaling eight instruments, to probe the Martian atmosphere and its interactions with the sun. Among these are ion, electron and ion composition analyzers and energetic particle detectors built at UC Berkeley, a neutral gas analyzer and magnetometer built at NASA Goddard, and an imaging ultraviolet spectrometer built at CU-Boulder.

“Looking forward, we are well positioned for the next push to critical design review in July 2011," said Mitchell. "In three short years, we will be heading to Mars."

Lin and his SSL colleagues built instruments for a previous Mars mission, the Mars Global Surveyor, that discovered evidence that Mars had lost its magnetic field nearly 4 billion years ago, not long after its formation. Planetary magnetic fields, like the earth's own, protect the planet from the intense solar wind and high-energy particles emitted during solar storms. Without that protection, Lin said, the solar wind and storms could have scoured Mars' atmosphere and eliminated it entirely over about a billion years.

Building on the preliminary data from Mars Global Surveyor, MAVEN will study how solar wind particles ionize Mars' remaining atmosphere, how rapidly the ions are carried into space, and attempt to reconstruct the atmosphere's history based on past activity of the sun.

"By understanding the loss process and combining that with a model for the history of the sun and isotope ratios, we will get a good handle on how the loss process went," Lin said.

An alternative hypothesis is that the atmosphere went underground, but current evidence suggests that that process could not account for the planet's entire .

In addition to leading the MAVEN mission, CU-Boulder’s LASP team will also provide science operations and lead education and public outreach efforts. Goddard will manage the project, which will cost $438 million exclusive of the separately funded government-furnished launch vehicle and telecommunications relay package. Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colo., will build the spacecraft based on designs from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and 2001 Odyssey missions and will perform mission operations. The UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory will help support education and public outreach efforts.

Explore further: NASA issues 'remastered' view of Jupiter's moon Europa

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA selects CU-Boulder to lead $485M Mars mission

Sep 15, 2008

In the largest research contract ever awarded to the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics has been selected by NASA to lead a $485 million orbiting space mission ...

A Tale of Planetary Woe (w/ Video)

Nov 11, 2009

Once upon a time — roughly four billion years ago — Mars was warm and wet, much like Earth. Liquid water flowed on the Martian surface in long rivers that emptied into shallow seas. A thick atmosphere ...

NASA Selects Proposals for Future Mars Missions and Studies

Jan 09, 2007

On Monday, NASA selected for concept study development two proposals for future robotic missions to Mars. These missions would increase understanding of Mars' atmosphere, climate and potential habitability in greater detail ...

Recommended for you

NASA issues 'remastered' view of Jupiter's moon Europa

Nov 21, 2014

(Phys.org) —Scientists have produced a new version of what is perhaps NASA's best view of Jupiter's ice-covered moon, Europa. The mosaic of color images was obtained in the late 1990s by NASA's Galileo ...

European space plane set for February launch

Nov 21, 2014

Europe's first-ever "space plane" will be launched on February 11 next year, rocket firm Arianespace said Friday after a three-month delay to fine-tune the mission flight plan.

Space station rarity: Two women on long-term crew

Nov 21, 2014

For the 21st-century spacewoman, gender is a subject often best ignored. After years of training for their first space mission, the last thing Samantha Cristoforetti and Elana Serova want to dwell on is the ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Eco_R1
not rated yet Oct 08, 2010
isnt it something to do with the magnetic field of mars dissapearing and solar winds blowing the unprotected atmosphere into space, and that this scenario is going to be the end result of earth too?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.