What Killed Mars? A New Spacecraft Will Find Out

When Mars lost its atmosphere it also lost its water—and any chance of being a planetary contender. Now we may find out how that happened

  • Share
  • Read Later

Every bit of research that’s ever been conducted on Mars has in some ways been an autopsy. It’s now well-established that Mars was once a warm, wet place—about half as big as Earth but in most other respects every bit as fertile-looking. If all of the water Mars once had were spread evenly over its face, it would have formed a global ocean 0.3 mi. (0.5 km) deep. The water wasn’t distributed that way, of course. Instead it pooled in great oceans, rushed in deep rivers, spread out in giant alluvial fans like the Nile or Mississippi deltas.

But all that changed about 3.7 billion years ago, when Mars and Earth were both only 800 million years old, and all of the Martian water begin vaporizing into space or freezing into ice caps. And the reason the planet lost its water: it first lost its air, getting by today with an atmosphere that’s only about 1% as dense as Earth’s.

The longstanding question has always been, Why? What destroyed the Martian atmosphere and left the planet the cadaver it is today? Now, NASA‘s MAVEN spacecraft, set for launch on Nov. 18, may find out, studying the remains of Mars’s air in a way it never has been before and finally determining what became of the rest of it.

(MORE: Asteroid Pours Water on Dead Sun. Yes, That’s Happening)

The simplest explanation for the sad state of Mars today is that it was just too small to hold onto its air. Not only is Mars smaller than Earth by size, but also by mass and density, which gives it a gravity just 38% of ours. That would have made it easy for the upper reaches of the atmosphere to have simply trickled away into space. Far more damage would have been done by meteor strikes during what’s known as the  late heavy bombardment period, from 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, which would have blasted atmosphere away in great, one-way gusts. Earth, of course, got clobbered too, and while it surely lost some of its atmosphere, it hung onto much more.

But Mars may have been subjected to a more insidious atmosphere-stripping force. Solar wind, the storm of charged particles that flow outward from the sun at about 1 million mph (1.6 million k/h), would have collided with the planet’s atmosphere, causing some of its atoms and molecules to sputter into space and changing the electromagnetic properties of others, sending them drifting off as well. Again, Earth would have felt the same solar fury—indeed, its tighter orbit would have made the blasts even worse—but our planet also has a magnetic field that protects us from the solar plasma. Mars once had one too but it shut down early in the planet’s history—and with that the planet’s air and water were doomed.

(MORE: Want to See the Real Great Lakes? Leave Earth)

“Studies of the remnant magnetic field by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor mission, set the disappearance of the planet’s…magnetic field at about 3.7 billion years ago, leaving the Red Planet vulnerable to solar winds,” said MAVEN project scientist Joseph Grebowsky in a NASA statement.

But all of those mechanisms are only theories. MAVEN (a somewhat labored acronym for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN—and no, that capital N isn’t a typo) will attempt to settle them. The spacecraft is a comparatively lean machine, measuring 37.5 ft (11.4 m) from solar wingtip to solar wingtip and weighing 1,991 lbs (903 kg). But that small body will be stuffed with eight different instruments to measure atmospheric composition, solar wind ionization, planetary magnetism and more.

(MORE: Supervolcanoes! Mars Had ‘em. So Could We)

In order to get both a big-picture look at the planet in ultraviolet wavelengths and some close-up tastes of the atmosphere, the ship will fly an exceedingly eccentric orbit, from a high of 3,278 mi. (6,000 km), to a low of 93 mi. (150 km). It will also make a few deep dives down to just 77 mi. (125 km). The goal in all of these studies is, in a sense, to reverse engineer the planet: understand the atmosphere and magnetism that are left, the continued battering by the solar wind and what’s that doing to the remaining air, and you can infer how things played out more than 3 billion years ago.

“MAVEN has been designed to measure the escape rate for all the applicable processes and will be able to single out the most prominent,” says Grebowsky. And that, in turn, will paint a fuller picture than we’ve ever had of Mars’s past.

Nothing, of course, will heal Mars. The planet that could have been Earth’s verdant little sister will remain the desert it is. If microbial or other life ever took hold there, it might still hang on under the soil or within caves or fissures. The most ancient signs of life on Earth date back to 3.8 billion years ago, or shortly before Mars began to go dry, so if biology got started here, it could have similarly arisen there. It will take landers, rovers and perhaps an eventual human mission to settle that question for sure. Until then, MAVEN will help explain what snuffed out the planet’s chances of being much more than it became.

(INTERACTIVE: ‘Comet of the Century’ Tracker: Where’s ISON Now?)

8 comments
Ohyunjoeng
Ohyunjoeng

Mars is a mysterious planet.
The longstanding question has always been, Why?
What destroyed the Martian atmosphere and left the planet the cadaver it is today?
Now, NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, set for launch on Nov. 18, may find out,
studying the remains of Mars's air in a way it never has been before and finally determining what became of the rest of it.
In my opinion, we can not treat this mysterious Mars. So sad
Continue to find a way. So that we can see the planet continues.
So we must have a lot of attention to Mars.

GHBest1
GHBest1

Being a woodworker, it's got to be solar sanding of the Mars atmosphere.  All the water molecules being blasted away over the eons.

parisramada
parisramada

obama would turn mars and it's exceedingly eccentric orbit in to a socialist paradise for him Al Sharpon, katey perry, madonna, lady gag, al gore, bill and hilery clinton, Rod Blagojevich. sandra bullock, 

 and John Mar.

John
John

What Killed Mars? A New Spacecraft Will Find Out

Just like that?  Sounds like the height of arrogance!



BabuG.Ranganathan
BabuG.Ranganathan

ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH

In the Earth's past there was powerful volcanic activity which could have easily spewed dirt and rocks containing microbes into outer space which not only could have eventually reached Mars but also ended up traveling in orbit through space that we now know as meteors. A Newsweek article of September 21, 1998, p.12 mentions exactly this possibility. "We think there's about 7 million tons of earth soil sitting on Mars", says scientist and evolutionist Kenneth Nealson. "You have to consider the possibility that if we find life on Mars, it could have come from the Earth" [Weingarten, T., Newsweek, September 21, 1998, p.12].

HAVING THE RIGHT CONDITIONS AND  RAW MATERIALS FOR  LIFE doesn't mean that life can originate by chance.

Proteins can't come into existence unless there's life first! Miller, in his famous experiment in 1953, showed that individual amino acids (the building blocks of life) could come into existence by chance. But, it's not enough just to have amino acids. The various amino acids that make-up life must link together in a precise sequence, just like the letters in a sentence, to form functioning protein molecules. If they're not in the right sequence the protein molecules won't work. It has never been shown that various amino acids can bind together into a sequence by chance to form protein molecules. Even the simplest cell is made up of many millions of various protein molecules.

The probability of just an average size protein molecule arising by chance is 10 to the 65th power. Mathematicians have said any event in the universe with odds of 10 to 50th power or greater is impossible! The late great British scientist Sir Frederick Hoyle calculated that the the odds of even the simplest cell coming  into existence by chance is 10 to the 40,000th power! How large is this? Consider that the total number of atoms in our universe is 10 to the 23rd power.

Also, what many don't realize is that Miller had a laboratory apparatus that shielded and protected the individual amino acids the moment they were formed, otherwise the amino acids would have quickly disintegrated and been destroyed in the mix of random energy and forces involved in Miller's experiment.

There is no innate chemical tendency for the various amino acids to bond with one another in a sequence. Any one amino acid can just as easily bond with any other. The only reason at all for why the various amino acids bond with one another in a precise sequence in the cells of our bodies is because they're directed to do so by an already existing sequence of molecules found in our genetic code.

Of course, once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn't have even reached the partially evolved state.

Please read my popular Internet articles listed below:

ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH,
SCIENCE AND THE ORIGIN OF LIFE,
NATURAL LIMITS OF EVOLUTION,
HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM,
WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS (2nd Edition),
NO HALF-EVOLVED DINOSAURS,
DOES GOD PARTICLE EXPLAIN UNIVERSE'S ORIGIN?

Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

Sincerely,
Babu G. Ranganathan*
(B.A. theology/biology)

Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

* I have had the privilege of being recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis "Who's Who In The East" for my writings on religion and science, and I have given successful lectures (with question and answer time afterwards) defending creation from science before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities.

FeebWillis
FeebWillis

Its amazing to what extent a lack of imagination can lead to bad conclusions.  If it is found by MAVEN that a lack of a magnetic field is what lost Mars its atmosphere, then we can likely stably terraform Mars by creating an artificial magnet field. The earth's magnet field is very weak and since only a weak field is required. we can likely produce an artificial field around Mars ourselves to the required intensity.

Also, there is a heck of a lot of oxygen trapped in the Martian soil.  Which, after all, is rusted.


tkulaga
tkulaga

Why are we even doing this? Why spend the money on this project when we have so many things broken at home that really need fixing? I don't want to pass this bill and the others down to my children and grandchildren. When will it stop?

Daharas
Daharas

@tkulaga Research like this isn't just being done for no reason. Figuring out why Mars became barren can help us identify if it could happen to Earth and I there are any preventative measures me can take. 

Also I never understood the argument of not doing research like this because things here need fixing. Why does something like this need to be cut? Why not cut funding to other programs? It's like me coming on here and asking why you're wasting your time posting and not helping with relief efforts in Indonesia or stopping logging in the rainforest. It's seems like an illogical argument to me.