Monday night should see the launch of an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral. Onboard will be the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe.
MAVEN will be collecting data related to the martian atmosphere and will help scientists determine what factors contributed to its eventual loss, a process that resulted in (what may have been) a lush world with liquid water into the barren desert world.
Scientists think that a few different factors could have driven the escape of Mars’ atmosphere, according to NASA:
- Kinetic Energy: Molecules in the atmosphere of Mars could naturally bounce off of one another, making the high-energy atoms in the upper atmosphere escape into space. This could be the reason Mars lost hydrogen.
- Photochemistery: Sunlight can create positive ions that can recombine with electrons and cause a reaction that energizes atoms, which then escape from the atmosphere.
- Solar Wind: Magnetic field lines carried by solar wind could have carried charged molecules in Mars’ upper atmosphere into space.
- Sputtering: Some ions, although very energetic, may not have escaped Mars and were hurled back into the atmosphere. If these charged particles hit other molecules, it could spur their acceleration, causing atmospheric loss.