martian exploration

1,000 Days in Orbit: MAVEN’s Top 10 Discoveries at Mars

On June 17, our MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) will celebrate 1,000 Earth days in orbit around the Red Planet.

Since its launch in November 2013 and its orbit insertion in September 2014, MAVEN has been exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars. MAVEN is bringing insight to how the sun stripped Mars of most of its atmosphere, turning a planet once possibly habitable to microbial life into a barren desert world.

Here’s a countdown of the top 10 discoveries from the mission so far:

10. Unprecedented Ultraviolet View of Mars

Revealing dynamic, previously invisible behavior, MAVEN was able to show the ultraviolet glow from the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail. Nightside images showed ultraviolet “nightglow” emission from nitric oxide. Nightglow is a common planetary phenomenon in which the sky faintly glows even in the complete absence of eternal light.

9. Key Features on the Loss of Atmosphere

Some particles from the solar wind are able to penetrate unexpectedly deep into the upper atmosphere, rather than being diverted around the planet by the Martian ionosphere. This penetration is allowed by chemical reactions in the ionosphere that turn the charged particles of the solar wind into neutral atoms that are then able to penetrate deeply.

8. Metal Ions

MAVEN made the first direct observations of a layer of metal ions in the Martian ionosphere, resulting from incoming interplanetary dust hitting the atmosphere. This layer is always present, but was enhanced dramatically by the close passage to Mars of Comet Siding Spring in October 2014.

7. Two New Types of Aurora

MAVEN has identified two new types of aurora, termed “diffuse” and “proton” aurora. Unlike how we think of most aurorae on Earth, these aurorae are unrelated to either a global or local magnetic field.

6. Cause of the Aurorae

These aurorae are caused by an influx of particles from the sun ejected by different types of solar storms. When particles from these storms hit the Martian atmosphere, they can also increase the rate of loss of gas to space, by a factor of ten or more.

5. Complex Interactions with Solar Wind

The interactions between the solar wind and the planet are unexpectedly complex. This results due to the lack of an intrinsic Martian magnetic field and the occurrence of small regions of magnetized crust that can affect the incoming solar wind on local and regional scales. The magnetosphere that results from the interactions varies on short timescales and is remarkably “lumpy” as a result.

4. Seasonal Hydrogen

After investigating the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet for a full Martian year, MAVEN determined that the escaping water does not always go gently into space. The spacecraft observed the full seasonal variation of hydrogen in the upper atmosphere, confirming that it varies by a factor of 10 throughout the year. The escape rate peaked when Mars was at its closest point to the sun and dropped off when the planet was farthest from the sun.

3. Gas Lost to Space

MAVEN has used measurements of the isotopes in the upper atmosphere (atoms of the same composition but having different mass) to determine how much gas has been lost through time. These measurements suggest that 2/3 or more of the gas has been lost to space.

2. Speed of Solar Wind Stripping Martian Atmosphere

MAVEN has measured the rate at which the sun and the solar wind are stripping gas from the top of the atmosphere to space today, along with details of the removal process. Extrapolation of the loss rates into the ancient past – when the solar ultraviolet light and the solar wind were more intense – indicates that large amounts of gas have been lost to space through time.

1. Martian Atmosphere Lost to Space

The Mars atmosphere has been stripped away by the sun and the solar wind over time, changing the climate from a warmer and wetter environment early in history to the cold, dry climate that we see today.

Maven will continue its observations and is now observing a second Martian year, looking at the ways that the seasonal cycles and the solar cycle affect the system.

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To travel in space you must leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, country talk, mother talk, love talk, party talk. You must learn to exist with no religion, no country, no allies. You must learn to live alone in silence. Anyone who prays in space is not there.
—  William S. Burroughs, ‘It Is Necessary to Travel…’

Foster + Partners extend their space concepts from the moon to Mars

With the news that flowing water has been discovered on Mars, it seemed apt to post this fantastic concept for 3D-printed Martian habitats. Built entirely by automated machines using regolith harvested from the surface, these habitats hold a strong similarity to those imagined in a previous project by Foster and his team (which I previously posted here). Three kinds of robots would be dropped onto the surface of the red planet - one to dig the craters for the pods to rest in, one to gather and process the regolith used in construction, and a third to use microwaves to fuse the materials in place. Like the moon project, each habitat has a prefab core that is parachuted in, and this printed covering is created around as a protective shell. 

More at: dezeen

NASA's MAVEN reveals Mars has metal in its atmosphere

Mars has electrically charged metal atoms (ions) high in its atmosphere, according to new results from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. The metal ions can reveal previously invisible activity in the mysterious electrically charged upper atmosphere (ionosphere) of Mars.

“MAVEN has made the first direct detection of the permanent presence of metal ions in the ionosphere of a planet other than Earth,” said Joseph Grebowsky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “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 lead author of a paper on this research appearing April 10 in Geophysical Research Letters.

MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) is exploring the Martian upper atmosphere to understand how the planet lost most of its air, transforming from a world that could have supported life billions of years ago into a cold desert planet today. Understanding ionospheric activity is shedding light on how the Martian atmosphere is being lost to space, according to the team.

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Mars Lite: Alaska’s Dalton Highway in Winter 

In the following essay, excerpted from BLM’s 2016 Dalton Highway Visitor Guide, recently retired BLM Alaska park ranger Lisa Jodwalis uses a recent Hollywood science fiction movie to highlight the challenges (and thrills) of a winter visit to the remote Dalton Highway, which connects Interior Alaska and the North Slope.

Lisa Jodwalis worked as a park ranger and ran the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot from 2001 to 2008. She assisted the BLM hydrologist with snow surveys along the Dalton Highway from 2011 to 2013 and has driven the road in every month except January. She always made it home without freezing any digits.

In the book and movie “The Martian,” astronaut Mark Watney struggles to survive alone on a desolate desert planet where the average temperature is -80ºF. Although he has trained for this and @nasa has provided some awesome tools, anything that can go wrong, does. Only his determination, resourcefulness, and know-how keep him alive. But that’s science fiction, right? 

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“Everywhere I go, I’m the first. It’s an odd feeling. If I decide to step out of the rover, I’m the first guy to be there, if I climb a hill, the first guy to do that. It’s been eight-billion years since anything’s lived here. I’m the first person in history to ever be alone on an entire planet.”

Meteorite tells us that Mars had a dense atmosphere 4 billion years ago

Exploration missions have suggested that Mars once had a warm climate, which sustained oceans on its surface. To keep Mars warm requires a dense atmosphere with a sufficient greenhouse effect, while the present-day Mars has a thin atmosphere whose surface pressure is only 0.006 bar, resulting in the cold climate it has today. It has been a big mystery as to when and how Mars lost its dense atmosphere.

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