The Sun Is Obliterating Mars' Atmosphere

Solar storms hit with energy of 'one large nuclear weapon per hour'
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 5, 2015 3:48 PM CST
The Sun Is Obliterating Mars' Atmosphere
An artist's rendering provided by NASA of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from its upper atmosphere.   (Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA via AP)

Scientists might finally have an explanation for how Mars went from an Earth-like, potentially life-sustaining planet to a cold ball of rock barely capable of keeping a single Matt Damon alive. Discovery reports the sun has been "blasting away" the planet's once-thick atmosphere for the past few billion years, a new finding scientists announced Thursday. When a solar storm hit Mars in March, NASA's Maven spacecraft was in the perfect spot to watch as oxygen and carbon dioxide ions from the planet's atmosphere were thrown into space. “We got this extreme event and wham! We knocked a bunch of atmosphere out of Mars,” one scientist tells Discovery. According to the New York Times, Mars loses up to 10 pounds of atmosphere per second during solar storms, which occur a few times per year; the rest of the time, the air leaks away more slowly, at a rate of about half a pound per second, scientists say.

Discovery reports the sun isn't the only reason Mars' atmosphere is being destroyed, but it may be the biggest. One member of the Maven team tells the Times the energy that hit the Martian atmosphere in March was pretty much "one large nuclear weapon per hour." According to Smithsonian Magazine, scientists believe most of Mars' atmosphere was lost in the first billion or so years of its existence when the sun was more active. Now the goal is to figure out if the planet had a life-supporting atmosphere long enough for life to actually form. As for the atmosphere Mars still has left, scientists don't see it lasting more than about two billion years before the sun completely strips it away, Discovery reports. (This comet is spewing out vast amounts of booze.)

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