Billions of years ago, our sister planet Mars could have been a lot like Earth — water, an atmosphere, and (fingers crossed) life. But in the intervening millennia Mars lost its cushion of gas, and any water or life it had along with it. Just why almost all its gas was blown into space is what NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft — launched in November of 2013 — is trying to find out. It found a mohawk.
Pictured above are the simulated paths of ions blasting out of Mars’ wispy atmosphere. The hotter the color (i.e., red vs blue), the more energetic the particles. Radiation from the Sun via “solar wind,” solar flares, and Coronal Mass Ejections charge up the atoms and molecules in Mars’ atmosphere and then rip them away though various magnetic and electrical interactions. The result is a thinner atmosphere over time, and plumes of ions, or electrically charged particles, making mohawks at martian poles.
Data coming in from MAVEN shows that Mars gets even more metal, literally. Back in February, MAVEN dipped into the Martian atmosphere, a mere 125 kilometers (almost 78 miles) above the surface. It detected a layer of metal ions we’d expect if a metallic comet recently passed by, but one hadn’t. Mars seems to have a persistent layer of metal ions floating about.
MAVEN also confirmed sporadic auroras happening in the martian atmosphere. These light shows aren’t nearly as concentrated as the ones on Earth — we have a magnetic field encircling us that corrals the Northern Lights into serpentine shows, Mars’ inner dynamo has died — but their presence does provide another way for energized gas to escape into space.
The spacecraft has been so successful in fact that its mission has been extended from this November to next September, when other planetary missions will be re-evaluated and reviewed. Of course, investigating a metal-layered, glowing mohawk planet helps.
IMAGES: X. Fang, University of Colorado, and the MAVEN science team