NASA's MAVEN spacecraft detects metal in Mars upper atmosphere

The researchers believe that the study of these ions may help to solve the mystery of the Red Planet's transformation.

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft discovers metal in Mars upper atmosphere
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission is seen in this undated artist's concept released September 22, 2014. Reuters

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said its MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) spacecraft has discovered the presence of metal in Mars's atmosphere. It revealed that the planet's atmosphere contains electrically charged metal atoms (ions), just like the atmosphere on Earth.

"MAVEN has made the first direct detection of the permanent presence of metal ions in the ionosphere of a planet other than Earth," Joseph Grebowsky of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a NASA statement.

According to NASA, the long life of metallic ions helps them to get far from their original location via neutral winds and electrical fields. They can also be used to infer motion in the ionosphere. The researchers believe that the study of these ions may help to solve the mystery of how the Red Planet transformed into an airless planet and lost its ability to support life. Its presence could have turned it into a livable place.

The metal present in the atmosphere apparently comes from a constant rain of small sized meteoroids on Mars. On hitting the atmosphere of the red planet with high speed, the meteoroids vaporize. Then the metal atoms present in the vapor get transformed into electrically charged ions after their electrons get torn away by other charged atoms and molecules present in the ionosphere.

MAVEN has been exploring the Martian upper atmosphere: the ionosphere for about a year and a half now to understand the Red Planet's transformation to a cold barren planet over a span of billions of years.

"Because metallic ions have long lifetimes and are transported far from their region of origin by neutral winds and electric fields, they can be used to infer motion in the ionosphere, similar to the way we use a lofted leaf to reveal which way the wind is blowing," said Grebowsky, who is lead author of a paper on this research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Over the last two years, MAVEN has detected iron, magnesium, and sodium ions in the upper atmosphere of Mars using its Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer instrument, giving the team confidence that the metal ions are a permanent feature.

"We detected metal ions associated with the close passage of Comet Siding Spring in 2014, but that was a unique event and it didn't tell us about the long-term presence of the ions," Grebowsky added.

Earlier, there have been several hypotheses regarding the prevalence of metal ions in the atmosphere above other planets in our solar system, but this detection of ion metals by MAVEN is the first conclusive proof of their existence on another planet.

"Observing metal ions on another planet gives us something to compare and contrast with Earth to understand the ionosphere and atmospheric chemistry better," Grebowsky concluded.

According to reports, MAVEN would be used for another year and a half of scientific research about Mars, and then again six years as a telecommunications orbiter, before it finally runs out of fuel.