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MAVEN finds metal in Mars’ atmosphere

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft approaches the planet Mars in this artist's depiction. Image Credit NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider - Copy

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft approaches the planet Mars in this artist’s depiction. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft has discovered electrically charged metal atoms (ions) high in the atmosphere of Mars. The metal ions help provide clues about previously invisible activity with Mars’ electrically charged upper atmosphere (ionosphere). 

MAVEN launch: A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41 with NASA's MAVEN spacecraft. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

MAVEN launched from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-41 in late 2013 atop a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s Joseph Grebowsky, who works at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said: “MAVEN has made the first direct detection of the permanent presence of metal ions in the ionosphere of a planet other than Earth.

“Because metallic ions have long lifetimes and are transported far from their region of origin by neutral winds and electric fields, they can be used to infer motion in the ionosphere, similar to the way we use a lofted leaf to reveal which way the wind is blowing.”

Grebowsky is the lead author of a paper on this research which was published April 10 in Geophysical Research Letters.

Built by Lockheed Martin, MAVEN has been busy investigating the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet to understand how Mars lost most of its atmosphere.

Mars was altered from a world that might have been capable of supporting life billions of years ago into the frigid desert world it is today. According to the mission’s team, recent findings of activity in the ionosphere are providing insights into how the Martian atmosphere is being lost into space.

The metal atoms come from tiny meteoroids that are vaporized when they hit the Martian atmosphere. Metal atoms in the vapor trail get some of their electrons stripped away by other charged atoms in the ionosphere, transforming the metal atoms into electrically charged metal ions.

Since it was inserted into Martian orbit on September 22, 2014, MAVEN has detected ions of iron, magnesium, and sodium in the upper atmosphere of Mars over the last year using its Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer instrument over the past two years, indicating that the metal ions are a permanent feature.

“We detected metal ions associated with the close passage of Comet Siding Spring in 2014, but that was a unique event and it didn’t tell us about the long-term presence of the ions,” Grebowsky said.

The interplanetary dust that causes meteor showers is common throughout the Solar System, so it’s possible that all of the planets and moons with substantial atmospheres have metal ions. Metal ions have been detected high in Earth’s atmosphere using sounding rockets, radar, and satellite measurements.

While there has been indirect evidence of metal ions above other planets. The long-term detection of the metal ions by MAVEN is the first conclusive evidence that these ions exist on another planet and are a permanent feature there.

MAVEN was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida on November 18, 2013, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket (flight number AV-038).



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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