NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) was able to detect oxygen atoms in the mesosphere of Mars. Atomic oxygen is not of the same kind than the one we breathe on Earth, but it does provide important clues about the behavior of gasses on the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
Oxygen was first detected on Mars back in the 1970’s; and although its measurement is a rather difficult task, the abilities of the SOFIA project allow researchers to observe the infrared wavelengths associated with the sought-after particle.
Oxygen on Mars – What does it imply?
Atomic oxygen differs from the oxygen we breathe, which is O2, meaning that it is composed of two atoms of oxygen. Atomic oxygen refers to individual atoms of the vital gas, which are usually formed through radiation, which decomposes O2 molecules.
The presence of atomic oxygen is important because it is theorized that billions of years ago, Mars had an atmosphere similar to Earth’s, which was once able to allow running liquid water and to sustain life. Eventually, the Red Planet’s magnetic field decomposed, which allowed its atmosphere to be torn apart by the radioactive rays coming from the Sun. Scientists argue that the re-discovery of atomic oxygen is of great importance as it points out to UV radiation being a key factor in the weakening of the Martian magnetosphere.
Measuring another planet’s atmosphere
The SOFIA project is developed through a Boeing 747SP which performs accurate measurements as it flies 45,000 feet above sea level. It has a 100-inch diameter telescope through which researchers are able to measure the atmospheric conditions of nearby celestial objects. The SOFIA project is being managed by NASA and the German Aerospace Center through the NASA Ames Research Center Mountain View, California.
According to NASA, the amount of atomic oxygen detected was about half of what was expected, which could be due to the ongoing variations of the Martian atmosphere. The first measurements of atomic oxygen were performed by the Mariner and Viking missions, on 1969 and 1975 respectively. The NASA Viking Project became the first mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of another planet.
It is worth noting that the SOFIA project is now accepting observing proposals which are to take place between February 2017 and January 2018. The plane is able to survey phenomena such as black holes, nebulae, solar systems, the life cycle of stars and much more. More details about this new phase of the SOFIA project can be found here.