A new study found that Mars lost its atmosphere to space, which caused its water supplies to dry out. The study also suggests that alien life may have existed in the red planet billions of years ago.
NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft team conducted the study published Friday in the journal Science. The study found that the Mars lost around 65 percent of its gas, which significantly affected the Mars’ atmosphere.
“We’ve determined that most of the gas ever present in the Mars atmosphere has been lost to space,” said Bruce Jakosky, the study’s lead author from the University of Colorado.
Intense radiation and solar winds devastated Mars
The scientists set out to discover why Mars has such a thin atmosphere, as opposed to other planets’ atmospheres. Researchers explained in the study that understanding Mars’ atmosphere would help explain how and why its climate changes, as well as informing scientists of similar processes that Earth could undergo.
“We determine the amount of gas lost to space through time using measurements of the upper-atmospheric structure made by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft,” wrote the researchers in the study. “The measurements require that 66 percent of the atmospheric argon has been lost to space. Thus, a large fraction of Mars’ atmospheric gas has been lost to space, contributing to the transition in climate from an early, warm, wet environment to today’s cold, dry atmosphere.”
The MAVEN investigation team was able to determine the percentage by measuring remaining argon, a noble gas, and comparing it to the argon levels that supposedly existed billions of years ago on Mars.
The atmospheric molecules, researchers believe, were slowly stripped away in a process called “sputtering.” Sputtering is a process in which intense radiation and solar winds from the sun bomb a solid target material with heat, ejecting particles of the material.
Researchers also suggested that there may have been forms of microbial life on Mars billions of years ago when it was a young planet. However, as the Sun was also young at the time, its ultraviolet radiation and solar winds were more intense, which caused the atmospherical decline in Mars.
For life to exist on a planet, liquid water is one of the key elements to make it possible. In Mars, some features could suggest the planet had liquid water once. There are dry riverbeds and some minerals, and researchers believe that long ago the planet may have had a climate suited for the water to flow.
If life existed on the Red Planet, the scientists believe that the sputtered atmosphere, and the cold temperatures that this phenomenon allowed, would have caused life to exist underground or in smaller pockets around the planet.
MRO completed 50,000th orbit of Mars
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter completed its 50,000th orbit around the planet on March 27. NASA launched the MRO in August 2005, and the probe entered the Red Planet’s orbit in March 2006.
The MRO has provided NASA with over 300 terabits of scientific data from the planet. The probe has six instruments, including three cameras. One of the cameras, the Context Camera, has provided over 90,000 photos of Mars’ surface to NASA, covering about 99.1 percent of the Martian surface.
The photographs have provided scientists with valuable information about the planet. The photos also provide relevant data for future operations, as scientists would be able to decide on safe landing sites.
“After 11 and a half years in flight, the spacecraft is healthy and remains fully functional. It’s a marvelous vehicle that we expect will serve the Mars Exploration Program and Mars science for many years to come,” stated Dan Johnston, MRO project manager, in a statement on NASA’s website.
NASA says that the MRO is the most data-productive spacecraft to date in Mars, providing valuable information about the planet. The probe has helped in preparations for NASA’s upcoming mission to Mars, dubbed the InSight lander.
The InSight will launch in 2018, and its mission will be to provide NASA with information about Mars’ unknown interior. Until the 2018 mission, the MRO will keep orbiting and documenting the Red Planet, as well as maintaining the communications-relay service for the two active rovers on Mars, called Opportunity and Curiosity.
The MRO probe has an essential role in helping scientists figure the landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover mission, according to NASA. Eight different locations had been selected as candidates, although NASA scientists were narrowing down the number to prepare the arrangements for the mission on time.