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New NASA missions to investigate how Mars turned hostile
Date:11/18/2011

tmosphere called solar flares, and eruptions of solar material called coronal mass ejections can all strip away the upper atmosphere of Mars in various ways. "If we figure out how much atmosphere is removed by changes in solar activity, we can extrapolate back to estimate what the isotope ratios should have been billions of years ago. However, if the measurements of the ancient ratios from SAM don't match up, this suggests that we may have to look at other ways the atmosphere could have been lost, such as giant impacts from asteroids," says Mahaffy, who is Principal Investigator for SAM and Instrument Lead for the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer instrument on MAVEN. Some scientists believe giant impacts could have blasted significant amounts of the Martian atmosphere into space.

Also, Curiosity will carry a weather station, which will help the MAVEN team understand how changes in the upper atmosphere are related to changes at the surface. "For example, if the rover detects a dust storm, it may have an effect higher up because of the winds and the gravity waves (the bobbing up and down of a parcel of air) it sets up," says Grebowsky.

"Curiosity will focus on geology and minerals to determine if the environment on Mars in the distant past had the potential to support life," said Mahaffy. "It will be digging in the dirt trying to understand the habitability issue in a place where water may have flowed, where there could have been a lake. Habitability is also the basic theme of MAVEN -- it will be trying to understand from the top down how the atmosphere evolved over time and how it was lost, which ties back to how clement it was early on."


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Contact: Nancy Neal-Jones
nancy.n.jones@nasa.gov
301-286-0039
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Source:Eurekalert  

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