Measuring about 227,900,000 kilometers from the sun, and named after the Roman god of war, Mars is the fourth (and the second smallest) planet in the solar system. It has a surface area of about 144,800,000 square kilometers, no magnetic field and a temperature range of −220 degrees Fahrenheit to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to the rapid breakdown of iron rocks that creates a rusty dust on its terrestrial surface, it has been dubbed the “Red Planet.”
Much like Venus, the Red Planet is bright and easily spotted in the night sky. As a result, its discoverer is not exactly known. Nevertheless, it has, over the decades, been a subject of keen interest and exploration.
There have been at least 38 attempted missions to Mars since 1960. Unfortunately, many did not even make it off the launch pad. It is difficult to get a craft into orbit, but successful landing is also every bit as challenging as initial take-off. The first successful trip, however, was made in 1960, and this remarkable success would later pave the way for other relevant discoveries such as Olympus Mons (the highest mount in the solar system) and Valles Marineris (the deepest and longest valley in the solar system).
Mars has a thin atmosphere comprised of 95.3% carbon dioxide, 27% nitrogen, 1.6% argon, 0.15% oxygen and 0.03% water. This atmospheric composition makes the planet cold, dry and incredibly hostile for life. Studies, however, reveal that it once had a denser atmosphere that supported liquid water: This formed the basis of the theoretical proofs for the existence of life.
The Martian atmosphere has since been lost to space, and the present atmospheric composition does not allow for the stability of water on its surface for any length of time. While the scientific explanation for this occurrence is still inroad, there is, however, a process whereby a planet can lose its atmosphere. This process is known as “sputtering.”
Sputtering is a spontaneous process whereby atoms are knocked away from the atmosphere due to impacts from energetic particles. In this process, an incident particle beam gives up some of its energy to the recoil motion of target atoms, where some may have escaped from a nearby surface. These escaped ions bounce back into the atmosphere and knock down other atoms.
Mars obviously lost its atmosphere through this process; its surface has been constantly battered by solar wind—a stream of high energy particles thrown out by the sun. This solar wind strips water molecules out of its atmosphere and leaves behind a trail of gas.
Studying the depletion of the Martian atmosphere can give real insights into the effects of change on its climate and other geochemical conditions. Comparative studies are, however, encouraged as explorations of this planet are still on, and every successful trip reveals new facts and figures.