Post 1970s, NASA researchers detected atomic oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere for the first time in 40 years, thanks to the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which soars on a plane that is 13.7 kilometres (45,000 feet) above Earth.
The oxgyen atoms were found in the Martian upper atmosphere – known as the mesosphere – and the discovery could help astronomers identify how gases escaped from the Red Planet long ago. While this is super exciting for our understanding of Mars – humanity’s potential new home – the researchers found only half the amount of oxygen they expected, but this could be the result of variations in the atmosphere.
The Viking and Mariner missions of the 1970s were the last time when atomic oxygen was observed in the Martian atmosphere. Are Earth’s blue skies responsible for such a long gap?
“Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure,” said SOFIA project scientist, Pamela Marcum. “To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer. SOFIA provides both capabilities.”
Yup, researchers have been at war with Earth’s skies for decades now, because it’s dense and moist enough to make it extremely difficult to accurately see the universe lying beyond it. So, to overcome this problem, researchers have implemented a bunch of workarounds (like making fake stars with giant lasers), which is where SOFIA comes in.
SOFIA is basically a giant aeroplane – a Boeing 747SP jetliner – with a large, 254-cm (100-inch) diameter telescope on it that can soar above most of Earth’s atmosphere to provide a clear picture.
It will take more time for the full results but then we can always get excited about the highly speculative possibility of terraforming the Red Planet.