NASA craft gets first glimpse of Martian atmosphere

16 Oct 2014

The Martian atmosphere. Image via NASA

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft launched last year has brought back the first images of the Martian atmosphere and will now look to investigate how the red planet lost it.

Data from the US space agency’s craft has now provided scientists with their first look at a storm of energetic solar particles at Mars that has produced unprecedented ultraviolet images of the tenuous oxygen, hydrogen and carbon coronas surrounding the planet. The images returned to Earth are of a highly variable ozone in the atmosphere underlying its coronas.

The craft entered the planet’s orbit last month after its 10-month journey from Earth and is now in the process of lowering its orbit gradually to gather different measurements of the atmosphere.

On 26 September, the MAVEN craft managed to be in the right place at the right time as a massive solar flare that had erupted from the sun earlier that month reached Mars. The craft was able to witness solar energetic particles (SEPs) bombard the planet.

A NASA video charting how Mars once could have looked liked when it had an atmosphere somewhat similar to Earth’s

According to NASA scientists, these events could be one of the most significant contributors to the planet’s atmospheric loss, despite neighbouring Earth’s atmosphere being able to reflect most of the harmful SEPs.

“With these observations, MAVEN’s IUVS has obtained the most complete picture of the extended Martian upper atmosphere ever made,” said MAVEN Remote Sensing Team member Mike Chaffin of the University of Colorado, as one of the project’s lead investigators.

“By measuring the extended upper atmosphere of the planet, MAVEN directly probes how these atoms escape to space. The observations support our current understanding that the upper atmosphere of Mars, when compared to Venus and Earth, is only tenuously bound by the red planet’s weak gravity.”

The NASA team now expects there to be about two weeks of testing before MAVEN starts its primary science mission, including an end-to-end test to transmit data between NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars, and Earth using the MAVEN mission’s Electra telecommunications relay.

 Three views of an escaping atmosphere, obtained by MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph. Image via University of Colorado/NASA

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic