The Fate of Mars’ Atmosphere

There is plenty of evidence that Mars at one time had an atmosphere that allowed water to flow on its surface. What happened to it? To find out, NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft is flying high above the Red Planet with a battery of sensors. 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.

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