Mars is blanketed by a thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere--one that is far too thin to prevent large amounts of water on the surface of the planet from subliming or evaporating. But many researchers have suggested that the planet was once shrouded in an atmosphere many times thicker than Earth's. For decades that left the question, "Where did all the carbon go?"
Now a team of scientists from Caltech and JPL thinks they have a possible answer. The researchers suggest that 3.8 billion years ago, Mars might have had only a moderately dense atmosphere. They have identified a photochemical process that could have helped such an early atmosphere evolve into the current thin one without creating the problem of "missing" carbon and in a way that is consistent with existing carbon isotopic measurements.
The scientists describe their findings in a paper that appears in the November 24 issue of the journal Nature Communications.
"With this new mechanism, everything that we know about the martian atmosphere can now be pieced together into a consistent picture of its evolution," says Renyu Hu, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL, a visitor in planetary science at Caltech, and lead author on the paper.
When considering how the early martian atmosphere might have transitioned to its current state, there are two possible mechanisms for the removal of excess carbon dioxide (CO2). Either the CO2 was incorporated into minerals in rocks called carbonates or it was lost to space.
A separate recent study coauthored by Bethany Ehlmann, assistant professor of planetary science and a research scientist at JPL, used data from several Mars-orbiting satellites to inventory carbonate rocks, showing that there are not enough carbonates in the upper kilometer of crust to contain the missing carbon from a very thick early atmosphere that might have existed about 3.8 billion years ago.
To study the escape-to-space scenario, scientists examine the ratio of carbon-12 and carbon-13, two stable isotopes of the element carbon that have the same number of protons in their nuclei but different numbers of neutrons, and thus different masses. Because various processes can change the relative amounts of those two isotopes in the atmosphere, "we can use these measurements of the ratio at different points in time as a fingerprint to infer exactly what happened to the martian atmosphere in the past," says Hu.