Mars has been in the news a lot this last week, thanks to both the Curiosity rover and the MAVEN orbiter.
Curiosity’s science capabilities received a boost when a upgrade to the ChemCam test system on Earth increased the number of Earth-rock geochemical samples examined by the system tripled to some 350, vastly increasing the science team’s ability to improve their interpretation of data gathered by Curiosity’s ChemCam system – the laser and telescope / camera which vaporises small amounts of rocks on Mars and them images the plasma that’s given of for chemical and mineralogical analysis.
In particular, the upgrade has allowed the science team to re-examine data the rover gathered about a site with the most chemically diverse mineral veins so far examined on Mars. Called “Garden City”, the site sits above the “Pahrump Hills” area at the foot of “Mount Sharp”, which the rover examined in detail in late 2014 / early 2015. Of particular interest to scientists were a series of raised mineral veins criss-crossing the surface of the rocks in the area.
These new Earthside capabilities have allowed the science team to better analyse the minerals within the veins and make finer distinctions between them, revealing their mineral and chemical compositions vary one to another, and also appear to vary with age.
These findings suggest that, rather than being the result of a single extended wet period in Gale Crater during which water percolated down through fissures in the rock to leave the minerals behind, the veins are the result of several individual wet periods in Mars’ ancient past. These wet periods appear to have occurred somewhat later than the more extensive wet periods which gave rise to a successive series of lakes within Gale Crater, the sediments from which form the lowest slopes of “Mount Sharp”. As such, the veins give further hints to atmospheric changes going on at a time at which Mars’ climate was undergoing extraordinary changes and fluctuations in its ancient past.
What Happened to Mars’ Atmosphere? The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind
Atmospheric changes are also at the heart of the latest data to be analysed from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN). This data, part of the mission’s long terms studies of the planet’s atmosphere and environment greatly clarifies the key role played by the solar wind in the gradual loss of Mars’ once dense atmosphere and the transition of the planet’s climate from a warm and wet environment to the cold, arid planet we see today.
The solar wind is a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the Sun’s atmosphere at a speed of about 1.6 million kilometres (1 million miles) per hour. The interaction of this solar wind generates an electric field around Mars, much like a turbine on Earth generates electricity. This electric field interacts with the upper reaches of Mars’ atmosphere, accelerating the ions there and shooting them into space.
MAVEN measurements indicate that gases are being stripped away in this manner from the Martian atmosphere at a rate of about 8.6 million tonnes per day. “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. “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.”
The impact of solar storms on the rate of loss from Mars’ atmosphere was directly observed by MAVEN at the start of 2015, when the planet was bracketed by a series of large-scale outpouring from the sun – the same solar activity which gave rise to the massive increase in auroral activity at that time (see my October 26th Space Sunday report).
“Solar-wind erosion is an important mechanism for atmospheric loss, and was important enough to account for significant change in the Martian climate,” Joe Grebowsky, MAVEN project scientist said of the data gathered by the mission. “MAVEN also is studying other loss processes – such as loss due to impact of ions or escape of hydrogen atoms – and these will only increase the importance of atmospheric escape.”