Mars is the most studied planet other than our own, currently playing host to no less than 7 different craft currently operating both in orbit and on its surface. It’s of interest to us due to its similarity to Earth, giving us an insight into how certain processes can affect planets differently. Mars is also the easiest of our sister planets to explore, being relatively close and having an atmosphere that won’t outright destroy craft that dare land on it. Still for all that research it still manages to surprise us, most recently by revealing the fact that liquid water still flows on it. We’re still far from done with it however and the MAVEN craft has just revealed some key insights into Mars’ atmosphere and the history behind its current state.
Mars’ atmosphere is extremely thin, over 100 times less dense than the atmosphere here on Earth. To put that in perspective that’s about the same density as the air here is on Earth at an altitude of about 30KM, or about 3 times as high as your typical jet airliner flies. It’s also almost all carbon dioxide with a small smattering of nitrogen and other trace elements. However it wasn’t always this way as numerous studies have revealed that it must have held a much thicker atmosphere in the past. What has remained something of a mystery is just how Mars came to lose its atmosphere and whether those same processes were in effect today. MAVEN, a craft specifically designed to figure this out, has made some key discoveries and it seems that the long held belief that the sun is to blame is true.
For a planet to lose its atmosphere there’s really only two places it can go. In some cases the planet itself can absorb the atmosphere, driving chemical reactions that pull all the gases down into more solid forms. This specific scenario was investigated on Mars however the lack of the kinds of minerals we’d expect to see, mostly carbonates given Mars’ mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere, means that this was unlikely to be the case. The second way is for it to lose the atmosphere to the vacuum of space which can happen in a number of ways, usually through the planet being unable to hold onto its atmosphere. This latter theory has proved to be correct although it’s far more interesting than Mars simply being too small.
In the past Mars would have looked a lot like Earth, a small blue marble wrapped in protective gases. Back then the core of Mars was still active, generating a magnetic field much like that on Earth. However, after a time, the core began to cool and the engine behind the giant magnetic field began to fade. As this field weakened the solar wind began to erode the atmosphere, slowly stripping it away. Today Mars’ magnetic field is around 40 times weaker than Earth’s, no where near enough to stop this process which is still continuing to this day. For Mars it seems that its diminutive core was what sealed its fate, unable to sustain its protective magnetic shield from the relentless torment of our sun.
Whilst this has been the prevailing theory for some time its good to get confirmation from hard data to support it. Our two closest solar relatives, Venus and Mars, provide insights into how planets can develop and what changes produce what outcomes. Knowing things like this helps us to understand our own Earth and what impacts our behaviour might have on it. Mars might not ever see its atmosphere again but at least we now know what it might have looked like once, and where it has gone.