Mars today has a thin atmosphere: the volume of gases (mostly carbon dioxide) in its atmosphere is less than 1 per cent that of Earth’s. However, evidence from the surface of Mars indicates that the planet was once much warmer and wetter than today. This suggests that the Martian atmosphere must once have been much thicker, creating a strong greenhouse effect that trapped the Sun’s light.
Thanks to numerous missions to the Red Planet, we now know that in its early infancy, up until around four billion years ago, Mars had a strong magnetic field, created, just like Earth’s, by convection currents of molten metals in the planet’s core. But, unlike Earth, Mars cooled enough internally to switch off this mechanism, and the planet ended up with no global magnetic field. Without this magnetic field, the planet was less protected from the solar wind – the stream of energetic charged particles flowing from the Sun.
The solar wind stripped away most of the Martian atmosphere in only a few hundred million years after the planet lost its magnetic field. This process was quick because the Sun rotated much faster in its youth, which made the solar wind more energetic. The loss of a large fraction of its atmosphere to space was a major cause of Mars’s transition from a warm, wet climate to today’s cold, dry one.
In contrast, the fact that the Earth retained its magnetic field, which deflects the solar wind, and hence held on to its atmosphere, ultimately allowed life to develop here.
- Could we create a breathable atmosphere on Mars?
- Could we live on airships in the atmosphere of Venus?
- Could life survive if the atmosphere disappeared?
- Can we filter greenhouse gases from the atmosphere?