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Mars MAVEN Data: Speed of Solar Wind, How It Changed Mars Climate

Nov 05, 2015 04:43 PM EST
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This is what it's like to spend eight months on Mars

Amid the absolute pile-up of exciting new space learnings lately, add in that we've now learned the solar-wind speed on Mars, and its role in the red planet's transition from warm and wet to its current state of cold aridity. Just imagine it buffeting around the Red Planet.

That is, data from NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission recently contributed to research regarding how fast the atmosphere of Mars is losing gas to space, as it is pulled away from the planet by the solar wind, according to a release. MAVEN launched in 2013.

In particular, the results say that Mars's atmosphere is especially eroded by solar storms. The researchers published these findings recently in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

"Mars appears to have had a thick atmosphere warm enough to support liquid water which is a key ingredient and medium for life as we currently know it," said John Grunsfeld, who is an astronaut and with the NASA Science Mission Directorate, in the release. "Understanding what happened to the Mars atmosphere will inform our knowledge of the dynamics and evolution of any planetary atmosphere. Learning what can cause changes to a planet's environment from one that could host microbes at the surface to one that doesn't is important to know, and is a key question that is being addressed in NASA's journey to Mars."

That solar wind is tearing away the atmospheric gases at about 100 grams (maybe ¼ pound) every second, the release noted. Also, this probably happened faster in the past. Bruce Jakosky, who is MAVEN principal investigator at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in the release: "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."

During intense solar storms that hit Mars atmosphere in March 2015, gas loss was also accelerated, according to the study data.

Solar wind is composed of mainly protons and electrons that move from the sun's atmosphere, using a speed of around one million miles per hour. Ultimately, this creates an electric field that speeds up gas atoms that are electrically charged (ions) that exist in the upper atmosphere of Mars and rockets those into space, confirmed the release.

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