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atomic oxygen on Mars

NASA Has Detected Atomic Oxygen On Mars’ Atmosphere

The airborne telescope SOFIA has measured atomic oxygen on Mars’ atmosphere, the first such measurement in four decades.

But don’t get carried away too quickly — atomic oxygen on mars is very different from the stuff we breathe on earth.

The Detection

The last time atomic oxygen was detected in the atmosphere of Mars was through NASA’s Viking and Mariner missions in the 1970s.

This time around, researchers used the airplane-turned-telescope observatory called SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy). SOFIA is run by NASA in partnership with the German Aerospace Center.

SOFIA, which flies between 37,000 and 45,000 feet above sea level, actually measured about half the amount of atomic oxygen on Mars that the researchers were expecting — perhaps due to variations in the atmosphere.

These atoms were found in the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere, called the Mesosphere.

“Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure,” said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist. “To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer. SOFIA provides both capabilities.”

Scientists detected only about half the amount of oxygen expected, which may be due to variations in the Martian atmosphere.

On Earth, our atmosphere contains the air we breathe, protects us from the Sun’s harmful radiation, enables the cycling of water, and keeps the Sun’s heat from escaping back into space.

Scientists believe that billions of years ago, Mars also had a thick atmosphere capable of sustaining liquid water and even life. But over time, the planet evolved to become cold and barren.

If Mars ever supported life, those gases may have played a critical role.

Atomic oxygen affects how easily gases escape the Martian atmosphere, so these measurements will likely help uncover more about why and how the protective gases enveloping Mars eroded over the last few billions of years.

atomic oxygen on Mars
SOFIA/GREAT spectrum of oxygen [O I] superimposed on a Viking 1 composite image of Mars by USGS University of Arizona.
Credits: SOFIA/GREAT spectrum: NASA/DLR/USRA/DSI/MPIfR/GREAT Consortium/ MPIfS/Rezac et al. 2015. Mars image: NASA


Atomic Oxygen on Mars

Mars today is a cold, barren desert, but scientists think it was once a warm and wet planet. The change may have been caused by the loss of an early atmosphere driven into space by the sun’s solar wind.

Mars has a violent history. In 2015, scientists concluded that around 3.5 billion years ago, Mars mysteriously lost its magnetic field.

This allowed huge bursts of energy from the Sun to gradually strip it of its atmosphere. This stripping is still happening today.

And this is where atomic oxygen comes into play.

Atomic oxygen is made up of just one atom while the oxygen we breathe (O2) is made up of two. Because it reacts easily with other substances, atomic oxygen doesn’t stick around for very long on Earth’s surface.

The reason it’s so prevalent in space is because of an excess of ultraviolet radiation: All that UV is constantly breaking apart O2 to create atomic oxygen.

Because of this, most of the atomic oxygen in the atmosphere resides in the top layer, where atoms and molecules escape into space. Scientists believe it is a key factor in determining how easily gases break free.

Measuring the amount of atomic oxygen on Mars atmosphere will give scientists more clues about this puzzling erosion.

atomic oxygen on Mars
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observatory, a flying telescope built into a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, takes off. SOFIA is a joint project by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
Credit: NASA

The researchers plan to continue using SOFIA to get a clearer picture of the Martian atmosphere. And compare their latest findings with measurements on other regions of the Red Planet.

The research was published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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