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MAVEN researchers find contributor to Martian climate change

MAVEN at apoapsis around Mars

Artist’s rendition of MAVEN at apoapsis in orbit around Mars. Image Credit: University of Colorado, Boulder

NASA researchers published the scientific results from their work studying the Martian atmosphere in the Nov. 5th issues of the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters, showing that solar wind is the main contributor to Martian climate change by stripping away its atmosphere.

Their research with NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has identified the process that appears to have played a key role in the transition of the Martian climate from an early, warm and wet environment that might have supported surface life to the cold, arid planet Mars is today.

“Mars appears to have had a thick atmosphere warm enough to support liquid water, which is a key ingredient and medium for life as we currently know it,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington D.C. “Understanding what happened to Mars’ atmosphere will inform our knowledge of the dynamics and evolution of any planetary atmosphere. Learning what can cause changes to a planet’s environment from one that could host microbes at the surface to one that doesn’t is important to know, and is a key question that is being addressed in NASA’s journey to Mars.”

The data from MAVEN has allowed researchers to calculate the rate at which the solar wind is stripping Mars of its atmosphere. Their results show that the rate is significantly increased in times of high solar activity, specifically during solar storms.

“Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “We’ve seen that the atmospheric erosion increases significantly during solar storms, so we think the loss rate was much higher billions of years ago when the sun was young and more active.”

MAVEN measurements indicate that solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 4 ounces (100 grams) every second.

Launch of Atlas V MAVEN from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. November 18, 2013

Launch of Atlas V MAVEN from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. November 18, 2013. (Click to enlarge.) Photo Credit: ULA / Patrick H. Corkery

Moving at a speed of nearly 1 million miles per hour, the solar wind is a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the Sun’s atmosphere. The magnetic field carried by the solar wind as it flows past Mars can generate an electric field. This is similar to using a turbine on Earth to generate electricity. This electric field created by the solar wind interacting with the Martian atmosphere accelerates electrically charged gas atoms, called ions. The result is that some of the charged particles are shot into space.

MAVEN was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41 on Nov. 18, 2013. The 1,784-pound (809 kg) spacecraft was launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. After a flight of nearly 10 months, MAVEN settled into Mars orbit on Sept. 22, 2014. The spacecraft is in a highly elliptical orbit of 93 miles (150 kilometers) by 3,900 miles (6,900 kilometers). It takes the spacecraft just over 4.5 hours to make one orbit of the Red Planet.

MAVEN carries three primary experiment packages. The first is the Particles and Field (P&F) Package built by the University of California, Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory. It includes the Solar Wind Electron Analyzer (SWEA), the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA), Magnetometer (MAG), and other equipment designed specifically to research the Martian atmosphere.

The second set of equipment is the Remote Sensing (RS) Package built by the University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. This package includes the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer (IUVS).

The final package is the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) built by Goddard Space Flight Center. It is designed to measure the composition and isotopes of neutral gases and ions.

MAVEN’s primary mission was planned for one year, but it has since been extended.

Video courtesy of NASA


Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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