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Mars has a huge, twisted tail and it could be destroying its atmosphere

Here's why the idea of a human colony on the Red Planet could remain nothing but a distant dream.

Edited by: India TV News Desk, New Delhi [ Updated: October 23, 2017 14:31 IST ]
Representative Image
Representative Image

The idea of a human colony on Mars in the future could remain a distant dream. With the lack of atmosphere already proving one of the biggest stumbling blocks to humans settling on Mars, this new discovery only proves why Mars may not be getting any more inhabitable anytime soon.

In a development that could offer greater details about the Martian atmosphere, premiere US space agency NASA has discovered an invisible, twisted magnetic tail trailing behind Mars as it orbits the Sun. The trail, believed to be caused by the effects of rushing solar winds, was revealed by readings from the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft.

According to scientists at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the Red Planet's local magnetic fields behave very differently from the global magnetic field around Earth and could offer an escape route to atmospheric particles into space.

"It's not like the magnetotail found at Venus, a planet with no magnetic field of its own, nor is it like Earth's, which is surrounded by its own internally generated magnetic field. Instead, it is a hybrid between the two," said Gina DiBraccio, a member of the team.

Billions of years ago, solar winds made up of electrically conducting gas blown out by the Sun are believed to have stripped away much of the Martian atmosphere. The same winds are now causing the unique magnetotail effect as they combine with the leftover regions of magnetism still present on certain parts of Mars.

The solar winds carry their own magnetic fields, and if they hit a region on Mars oriented in the opposite direction, it causes an effect called magnetic reconnection. It's here that the invisible twist happens, which could also be pushing more of the already thin atmosphere on Mars out into space, as electrically charged ions in the planet's upper atmosphere respond to the magnetic field created by the tail.

"Our model predicted that magnetic reconnection will cause the Martian magnetotail to twist 45 degrees from what's expected based on the direction of the magnetic field carried by the solar wind," says DiBraccio.

"When we compared those predictions to MAVEN data on the directions of the Martian and solar wind magnetic fields, they were in very good agreement."

The team believes that this magnetic reconnection could also be pushing more of the already thin atmosphere on Mars out into space, as electrically charged ions in the planet's upper atmosphere respond to the magnetic field created by the tail.

The magnetotail essentially gives these particles a path to follow to flow off the planet, using energy created by the magnetic reconnection – like a stretched rubber band suddenly snapping back into place, NASA said.

MAVEN is continually changing its orbit in relation to the Sun and has been able to map the magnetic fields of Mars in their entirety, and build up a map of the way the magnetotail is sent twisting and fluctuating by the solar winds.

The researchers now want to examine readings from instruments on MAVEN besides the magnetometer to confirm that reconnected magnetic fields are indeed contributing to atmospheric loss, and to what extent.

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