Coronal mass ejections at Mars

September 24, 2014 by Karen C. Fox
Mars. Image: NASA

Looking across the Mars landscape presents a bleak image: a barren, dry rocky view as far as the eye can see. But scientists think the vista might once have been quite different. It may have teemed with water and even been hospitable to microbial life. What changed?

One theory is that the continuous blast of solar particles from the sun – the constant stream of , coupled with more extreme explosions such as – might have been the culprit. On Sept. 21, 2014, a new NASA mission, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, reached Mars after a 10-month journey. Now safely in orbit around Mars, MAVEN will observe the Martian upper atmosphere, including keeping an eye on just what effect the solar wind and CMEs have on the red planet. Such observations not only help us understand the history of what led to the desert surface we see today, but also pave the way for protecting astronauts on future visits.

The sun was once substantially more active than it is today. Our young sun is thought to have frequently – perhaps even daily—blasted out intense bursts of radiation that are more rare in modern times. Here on Earth, our atmosphere is largely protected from the solar wind by Earth's magnetic field, but the evidence indicates that Mars's magnetic field nearly vanished early in the planet's history. So, over hundreds of millions of years, the particles from the sun could have worn away the Martian atmosphere, ultimately ripping most of it away and blowing it off into space. Testing that theory poses problems, though, as it's tough to replicate such extreme conditions. MAVEN's observations of an intense CME hitting Mars, however, could hold clues to what Mars endured, and how it was affected, eons ago.

NASA also cares about CMEs at Mars for another reason: These giant clouds of speeding solar material can impact computers aboard spacecraft and expose astronauts to dangerous radiation. We must understand such before sending humans to take their first step on this planet that still holds so many secrets.

This video is an artist's concept showing the transition from an ancient, habitable Mars capable of supporting liquid water on its surface to the cold desert world of today. Credit: NASA Goddard Conceptual Image Lab/Michael Lentz

Explore further: MAVEN Mars spacecraft to begin orbit of Red Planet

Related Stories

Video: MAVEN set to slide into orbit around Mars

September 17, 2014

A NASA mission to Mars led by the University of Colorado Boulder is set to slide into orbit around the red planet this week after a 10-month, 442-million mile chase through the inner solar system. 

NASA's Maven spacecraft reaches Mars this weekend

September 17, 2014

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).

Who are the two new arrivals at Mars?

September 24, 2014

As I write this, a team of engineers and scientists will be nervously watching the clock (in fact they are probably in their beds not sleeping). They are waiting for the time when the Mars Orbiter Mission (or MOM) will fire ...

Sputtering: How mars may have lost its atmosphere

September 13, 2012

Why is Mars cold and dry? While some recent studies hint that early Mars may have never been wet or warm, many scientists think that long ago, Mars once had a denser atmosphere that supported liquid water on the surface. ...

Recommended for you

Hubble discovers a unique type of object in the Solar System

September 20, 2017

With the help of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, a German-led group of astronomers have observed the intriguing characteristics of an unusual type of object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter: two asteroids ...

Ageing star blows off smoky bubble

September 20, 2017

Astronomers have used ALMA to capture a strikingly beautiful view of a delicate bubble of expelled material around the exotic red star U Antliae. These observations will help astronomers to better understand how stars evolve ...

New quasar discovered by astronomers

September 19, 2017

(Phys.org)—A team of astronomers led by Jacob M. Robertson of the Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee has detected a new quasi-stellar object (QSO). They found the new quasar, designated SDSS J022155.26-064916.6, ...

0 comments

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.