Mapping Mars' Upper Atmosphere

  • Released Wednesday, September 2, 2015

High above the thin Martian skies, NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft is carrying out a mission: determine how Mars lost its early atmosphere, and with it, its water. While previous Mars orbiters have peered down at the planet’s surface, MAVEN is spending part of its time gazing at the stars, looking for subtle changes in their color as they dip through the limb of Mars and set below the horizon. Such stellar occultations reveal what the atmosphere is made of, and how its composition varies with altitude. MAVEN’s observations are providing the most detailed picture of the Mars upper atmosphere to date, helping scientists understand how Mars turned from a warm and wet planet in its youth, into the forbidding desert that we see today.

MAVEN's near-polar orbit gives it latitudinal coverage of the Martian atmosphere, while the planet's daily rotation provides longitudinal coverage.

During its periodic "deep dip" campaigns, MAVEN lowers its closest approach to only 125 km above Mars, dipping into the upper atmosphere to measure it in situ.

When water molecules are split apart in the Martian atmosphere, the resulting hydrogen atoms escape more easily from the planet than the heavier oxygen atoms.

Before MAVEN entered its final science-mapping orbit, it observed carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen at varying altitudes above Mars. The heavier carbon and oxygen atoms cling tightly to Mars, while hydrogen atoms extend far above the planet.

Before MAVEN entered its final science-mapping orbit, it observed carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen at varying altitudes above Mars. The heavier carbon and oxygen atoms cling tightly to Mars, while hydrogen atoms extend far above the planet.

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NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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This page was originally published on Wednesday, September 2, 2015.
This page was last updated on Wednesday, May 3, 2023 at 1:49 PM EDT.


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