NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) spacecraft currently orbiting the Red Planet has detected metal ions in the world’s atmosphere, a first for a planet besides Earth. The metal ions are believed to be the remnants of meteors that burn up while entering Mars’s sparse atmosphere. Only hints of these ions have been detected on other planets. This is the first time conclusive evidence has been found.
Why are the metal ions significant?
Using its Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer instrument, the MAVEN probe has detected multiple types of ions, including iron, magnesium, and sodium ones, all tell-tale signs of past meteor activity in the upper ionosphere of Mars. This also lead scientists to believe that other planets and moons will have similar metals due to the frequency of meteors around their space bodies.
These ions often stay suspended in the atmosphere for extended periods of time, moving with the winds and magnetic fields of planets. Mars, unlike Earth, does not have a planet-wide magnetic field, though some researchers have theorized that it may have had one in the past.
Currently, Mars has only pockets of magnetic activity scattered about its crust. The movement of these ions and the traces of their past transitions could be used to determine how Mars lost its greater atmosphere in the past, or whether it ever had a larger magnetic field. Both of these could be indicators of life on Mars throughout its history.
These findings can also be used as a model for how Earth’s atmosphere may behave as it goes through changes similar to those that once occurred on Mars. The greater presence of ions in our planet’s atmosphere provide a different set of data, so gathering more information from planets other than Mars may be important in the future. The more data points scientists have, the better they can understand atmospheric behavior even in our world.