The planet might be a barren wasteland tasked with killing Matt Damon these days, but a few million years ago, Mars was warmer and wetter — and a whole lot more likely to have hosted life.
NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft recently observed the process that likely killed Mars’ atmosphere, in the form of solar wind blowing ions out of the planet’s atmosphere. Mars doesn’t have a global magnetic field to deflect charged particles, like the Earth, so all those particles blasting into the planet from the sun seem to have basically stripped that more habitable atmosphere straight off the planet.
“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, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “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.”
The research found a series of dramatic solar storms hit Mars in March, and MAVEN found that the particle loss was accelerated. According to NASA, the combination of greater loss rates and increased solar storms in the past suggests that loss of atmosphere to space was likely a major process in changing the Martian climate.
So, now that we’ve figured out what caused the atmosphere to change — let’s start figuring out a way to change it back. We’ve got a Mars base to build, y’all.