NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission) spacecraft has found that electrically charged meteoritic metal atoms (ions), including magnesium, iron and sodium ions, exist high in the Martian atmosphere, according to newly released data.
The space probe has “made the first direct detection of the permanent presence of metal ions in the ionosphere of a planet other than Earth,” said Joseph Grebowsky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, U.S., and lead author of a new study detailing MAVEN’s results,
published April 10 in Geophysical Research Letters.
The NASA mission, launched November, 2013, is designed to study the Martian atmosphere while orbiting the Red Planet. Among its goals are determining how the planet's atmosphere and water, presumed to have once been substantial, were lost over time. The probe detected the metallic ion presence over the last two years using its Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer instrument, giving the NASA team confidence that the metal ions are a permanent feature.
“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,” Mr. Grebowsky said.
The metal emanates from a constant rain of tiny meteoroids onto Mars --when a high-speed meteoroid hits the planet’s atmosphere, the “rain” vaporizes. Metal atoms in the vapor trail get some of their electrons torn away by other charged atoms and molecules in the ionosphere, transforming the metal atoms into electrically charged ions.
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