The first pieces of data have been returned from NASA’s MAVEN mission and have revealed fascinating information about Mars’s atmosphere.
The orbiter has shown that solar winds are able to penetrate deep into Mars’s atmosphere, deeper than was previously thought possible. As the winds re-emerge they energise the particles in the atmosphere, which then escape out into space. This explains why and how Mars is losing a fair chunk of its atmosphere.
The unexpected discovery of the depth to which the solar winds can penetrate can be explained, NASA scientists believe. As the solar winds hit the upper atmosphere the ions neutralise the solar winds. This allows them to continue their journey into the lower reaches of the Martian atmosphere without reacting with the ions and gases. When they exit the atmosphere they are re-energised and are followed by ions.
MAVEN is NASA’s newest Mars explorer, orbiting the Red Planet and dipping into the ionosphere once per orbit to gather crucial data about our planetary neighbour.