Oxygen Has Been Detected On Mars - Can We Go Now?

As you’ve probably seen, NASA has been exploring Mars for years now. But now in a potentially groundbreaking discovery, they’ve detected atomic oxygen in the Red Planet’s atmosphere for the first time in 40 years.

SOFIA/GREAT spectrum of oxygen [O I] superimposed on an image of Mars from the MAVEN mission. The amount of atomic oxygen computed from this SOFIA data is about half the amount expected. Credits: SOFIA/GREAT spectrum: NASA/DLR/USRA/DSI/MPIfR/GREAT Consortium/ MPIfS/Rezac et al. 2015. Mars image: NASA/MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission)

SOFIA/GREAT spectrum of oxygen [O I] superimposed on an image of Mars from the MAVEN mission. The amount of atomic oxygen computed from this SOFIA data is about half the amount expected.

Credits: SOFIA/GREAT spectrum: NASA/DLR/USRA/DSI/MPIfR/GREAT Consortium/ MPIfS/Rezac et al. 2015. Mars image: NASA/MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission)

An instrument onboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) discovered the atoms in the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere known as the mesosphere. This important for showing exactly what kind of atmosphere there is on Mars - namely how other gases escape Mars to make room for Oxygen. 

The levels they found were only half of what was expected, but the results are still helpful to demonstrate the variations in various atmospheric locations.

"Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure," said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist. "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."

Last time Oxygen was found in Mars’ atmosphere was during the Viking and Mariner missions of the 1970s, which required firing rockets up there. 

But now, thanks to SOFIA’s airborne location - 37-45,000 feet above the Earth’s atmosphere on a modified Boeing 747SP carrying a 100-inch diameter telescope, they can grab regular and detailed data.

All data is transmitted to the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), giving astronomers unprecedented access to viewing oxygen levels in the Martian atmosphere and compare to Earth.

First water, now air? Peace out, Planet Earth.