For the first time in four decades, scientists have detected a notable quantity of atomic oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere. The results of the reading, carried out by a modified Boeing 747SP, are seen as a step forward in the study of the atmosphere of the Red Planet.
Specifically, the oxygen was found in the upper layer of the planet’s atmosphere, called the mesosphere. Although the quantity of the vital gas discovered was about half that expected by the researchers, the find is expected to provide clues to how atmospheric erosion happens and also shed light on how gases permeate Mars’ atmosphere.
The layer of atomic oxygen was detected by a customized jetliner, namely a Boeing 747SP equipped with a telescope with a 100-inch diameter. The plane flies at an altitude of between 37,000 and 45,000 feet. Due to the high altitude, researchers can catch the far-infrared wavelengths crucial in detecting oxygen. Otherwise, the high density and moisture of the Earth’s skies makes it impossible to detect the gas. The use of a spectrometer, carried by the specially-adapted plane above Earth’s atmosphere, allows scientists to do just that.
Atomic oxygen is made up of a single atom of oxygen, compared to the O2 we breathe on Earth, which results when two oxygen atoms join together. Due to its high reactivity, the gas does not exist naturally on Earth’s surface for very long.
NASA’s interest in atomic oxygen is twofold. Firstly, researchers are eager to know more about the effect of the gas, which is very difficult to measure on Martian atmosphere, on materials used to build spacecraft. According to researchers, shuttle flights sent to space in the early days of American missions saw their outer layers of material erode under the influence of atomic oxygen. Secondly, scientists are interested in finding out as much as they can about the Red Planet’s atmosphere, ahead of a much-awaited manned mission to Mars.
Last time atomic oxygen was detected in the atmosphere of Mars was during the Mariner program, a mission targeting Mars, Mercury and Venus between 1962 and 1973, and the Viking program respectively, which was dedicated to Mars and carried out in 1975.
Image source: Wikipedia