Solving a Martian Mystery

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“The Red Planet bleeds. Not blood, but its atmosphere, slowly trickling away to space. The culprit is our sun, which is using its own breath, the solar wind, and its radiation to rob Mars of its air. The crime may have condemned the planet’s surface, once apparently promising for life, to a cold and sterile existence.”

And with this dramatic statement the official site for the upcoming MAVEN Mission introduces us to the next satellite destined to enter orbit around our neighboring planet. Its job: to help scientists here on Earth find out what happened to Mars’ atmosphere, now all but disappeared, and with it its protection from the Sun’s scouring radiation and whatever potentially life-giving water it may have once had in considerable amounts on its surface. Any water remaining today on Mars is either locked away in ancient ice fields, bunkered far beneath the bone-dry surface, or both. Suspect number one? The Sun, whose constantly streaming solar wind has free reign to blow Mars’ atmosphere into space due to the lack of any protective magnetic field.

“Mars can’t protect itself from the solar wind because it no longer has a shield, the planet’s global magnetic field is dead.”

– Bruce Jakosky, Principal Investigator

Hopefully once MAVEN (which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission….yeah, I know, it probably should have been MAVEM but that clearly didn’t sound as good) establishes orbit in September of 2014 and starts its work, we’ll know a little more about how a planet can lose its air.

After all, we really need to make sure we know how to keep ours.

Video: NASA/Goddard/Chris Smith