A recent NASA mission has discovered that the atmosphere on Mars has many similarities to that of Earth. Metal atoms, contained in dust particles, float down from the solar system and become trapped in the atmosphere of a planet. Energetic particles, for example from the Sun, can then rip electrons from the metal atoms, forming ions. Historically, we haven’t known what happens to these ions. Depending on the specifics of the planet in question, it’s possible these ions remain in the atmosphere for some time or quickly dissipate.
The NASA MAVEN, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, has helped illuminate the answer to this question. Sent to Mars back in 2013, MAVEN studies the atmosphere of the red planet. In 2014, the probe identified metals in Mars’s atmosphere, likely associated with the passage of a comet, “Sliding Spring.” This month, the probe detected metal ions again, this time with no major causative events. Without any other explanation, scientists have proposed that the metal ions have persisted for an extended time in the Martian atmosphere. This would be the first discovery suggesting a permanent presence of ions in an atmosphere other than that of Earth.
Unlike Earth, Mars’ has a limited and localized magnetic field, so these ions are likely to behave differently from those in the Earth’s atmosphere. On Earth, metallic ions are swirled around by the planet’s strong magnetic fields and shaped into distinct layers. By comparing and contrasting the two atmospheres, scientists will be able to develop unprecedented understanding of atmospheric dynamics.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Jean C. Rivera-Rios from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences for her insightful commentary.
Managing Correspondent: Emily Kerr
Media Coverage: Fox News: Metal detected in Mars’ atmosphere The scientists working on this project collaborated closely with the journalists who originally published this story. This article is therefore provides an excellent summary of the scientific work.
Scientific Article: Unique, non-Earthlike, meteoritic ion behavior in upper atmosphere of Mars