From a NASA spacecraft Mars today looks like a dead, rusted hulk of a world . But, billions of years ago when the planets of our solar system were still young, it was a very different world. Liquid water flowed in long rivers that emptied into lakes and shallow seas. A thick atmosphere of CO2, a potent greenhouse gas, blanketed the planet and kept it warm. In this cozy environment, living microbes might have found a home, starting Mars down the path toward becoming a second life-filled planet next door to our own.
The high-resolution image at the top of the page shows the planet's oldest terrain is rich in clay minerals, which formed in liquid water. Ancient rivers carried clays (green) into a lake that once filled Mar's Jezero crater.
The only way Mars could have been wet and warm 4 billion years ago, is if it also had a thick atmosphere. A thick blanket of CO2 and other greenhouse gases would have provided the warmer temperatures and greater atmospheric pressure required to keep liquid water from freezing solid or boiling away.
Something caused Mars to lose that blanket. One possibility is the solar wind. Unlike Earth, Mars is not protected by a global magnetic field. Instead, it has “magnetic umbrellas” scattered around the planet that shelter only part of the atmosphere. Erosion of exposed areas by solar wind might have slowly stripped the atmosphere away over billions of years. Recent measurements of isotopes in the Martian atmosphere by Mars rover Curiosity support this idea: light isotopes of hydrogen and argon are depleted compared to their heavier counterparts, suggesting that they have floated away into space.
Scientists have also speculated that the planet's surface might have absorbed the CO2 and locked it up in minerals such as carbonate. However, this theory has faded in recent years as Mars rovers and orbiters have failed to find enough carbonate to account for the missing gas.
The upcoming MAVEN mission will be the first mission to Mars specifically designed to help scientists understand the ongoing escape of CO2 and other gases into space. The probe will orbit Mars for at least one Earth-year. At the elliptical orbit's low point, MAVEN will be 125 km above the surface; its high point will take it more than 6000 km out into space. MAVEN's instruments will track ions and molecules in this broad cross-section of the Martian atmosphere, thoroughly documenting the flow of CO2 and other molecules into space for the first time.
Once Jakosky and his colleagues know how quickly Mars is losing CO2 right now, they can extrapolate backward in time to estimate the total amount lost during the last four billion years. "MAVEN will determine if loss to space was the most important player in driving Martian climate change," Jakosky says.
In the grand scheme of the Solar System, Earth orbits alongside a world that began with as much promise for life as our own … yet turned out so differently. After all these years, MAVEN could write the final chapter in a haunting planetary mystery.
The Daily Galaxy via Science@NASA and Dr. Tony Phillips
Image credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown