spaceSpace and Physics

Mars: The Heavy Metal Rock Star Planet

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Caroline Reid

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707 Mars: The Heavy Metal Rock Star Planet
Image capture from video of "Space Oddity" performed on the International Space Station. Chris Hadfield

Mars, the Red Planet, is apparently showing off its metal side... with a metal mohawk. Perhaps the "Blood-Red Planet" may now be a more fitting nickname? 

Jokes aside, scientists are serious about the metal mohawk: NASA's MAVEN spacecraft has detected a layer of metal particles in Mars' atmosphere that creates a metal streak around the planet. These metal particles even light up when they are smacked by a solar storm. A metal aurora mohawk. Does it get any more rock? 


MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, which is basically one of Mars' paparazzi, has been snapping up pictures of the Red Planet to examine its escaping atmospheric particles. Billions of years ago, Mars was thought to have a brimming atmosphere that was maybe even friendly enough to support life. MAVEN is trying to figure out where the atmosphere went. Perhaps all that headbanging shook it off?

While a conclusion has yet to be reached, scientists associate the loss of Mars' atmosphere with space and solar radiation. This radiation from the sun and outer space electrically charges some of the particles in the planet's atmosphere. These charged ions are then susceptible to the influence of magnetic fields from sources such as solar winds. These particles get blown off the planet when there is a powerful solar flare. Eventually, the atmosphere is worn down, getting thinner and thinner... like a dispersing crowd. 

A map of MAVEN's auroral detections in December 2014 overlaid on Mars' surface. The map shows that the aurora was widespread in the northern hemisphere, not tied to any geographic location. University of Colorado

"MAVEN is observing a polar plume of escaping atmospheric particles," said Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado, Principal Investigator for MAVEN. "The amount of material escaping by this route could make it a major player in the loss of gas to space." 


Theoretical models have predicted that the electric field generated by incoming solar wind is likely to steer ionized particles towards one of the poles. This pattern is exactly what MAVEN's results show. "When tracing particle trajectories in the models, the plume looks a bit like a 'Mohawk'," said David Brain of the University of Colorado, an interdisciplinary scientist working on the MAVEN mission. 

The metal ions in Mars' atmosphere (iron and magnesium) come from incoming solar system debris like meteorites or comet dust. The incoming rocks burn up in Mars' atmosphere – scattering their metal particles as they do so.

You're probably interested to know if Earth is also losing its atmosphere. Well, breathe easy. Earth is larger than Mars so its gravitational grip on its atmosphere is stronger. Earth is also blessed with a magnetic field that deflects incoming solar storms that would otherwise rip away parts of our atmosphere. 

Some air particles are lost naturally: lightweight particles like hydrogen and helium are blown off the furthest edges of our planet constantly. Fortunately, heavier atoms – like the oxygen that we need to breathe – are too heavy to be buffeted into space. 


However, Earth can still compete with Mars' rock star attitude: have a look at one of our own space rock stars, Chris Hadfield, rocking out on the International Space Station.



Space Oddity performed in space. Chris Hadfield (the true space rock star).


[Via NASA]


spaceSpace and Physics
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