Nasa is to hold a press conference to give new details about Mars. Nasa says it will reveal “key science findings” about the fate of Mars’ atmosphere on Thursday during a press conference at its Washington, DC headquarters.
The event will be broadcast live at 2:00px Eastern time today, November 5th. Here are the things we could find out:
1. How Mars lost its atmosphere
The line-up for Nasa’s press conference comprises mostly of scientists from the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), a team which is studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetosphere.
The MAVEN space probe entered Mars’ orbit last September and has been taking readings of the planet and its atmosphere ever since.
Nasa’s Curiosity Rover has already found evidence of dried up lake, rivers, pebbles and minerals which suggests there was once a dense enough atmosphere for water to run freely on Mars. But most of that atmosphere was lost over time and now Mars only has an atmosphere that is 99 per cent less dense than Earth.
Scientists think that over millions of years the planet’s core cooled and its magnetic field decayed which allowed solar winds to blow away water and volatiles into space.
Finding out what happened to Mars in the past will help Nasa plan for a future on the Red Planet.
MAVEN is one of five operational spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. The other ones are NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, India’s Mangalyaan probe and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express
2. Is there life on Mars?
Although MAVEN is primarily looking at how the atmosphere was lost, it is also hoped findings will help explain methane readings on Mars.
Methane is produced by living creatures, so it is a good indication that there might by organisms on the planet.
Trace amounts were first picked up by Nasa in 2003. Methane on Mars should break down quickly because of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun so its persistent presence indicates there is a source which is replenishing the gas.
It was first though that meteor impacts were bringing fresh supplies but researchers at Imperial College London found the number of crashes was way too low to sustain the measured levels.
Last December intriguing ‘burps’ of methane were recorded by the Curiosity Rover which may have been produced by bacteria. Low background level of methane can be explained by the Sun’s rays degrading organic material But the readings in a 300 metre squared area spiked 10-fold over a period of just 60 Martian days.
The new measurements from MAVEN may answer the question once and for all about where spikes could have come from.
3. Is Mars safe for habitation?
The MAVEN team is likely to give more details about the atmosphere of Mars to help Nasa design a safe base for future colonists.
Because Mars has virtually no atmosphere the planet is fairly inhospitable for human life and is bombarded by deadly solar radiation.
Nasa has already said that it is wants humans to be living and working on Mars in colonies entirely independent of Earth by the 2030s.
But currently the amount of time astronauts can spend in space is limited because of fears that radiation causes cancer.
Last week scientists also found signs that corrosive ” acid fog” floated across the Martian surface which could cause damage. It is thought this dangerous mist is emitted from volcanos.
Nasa recently released a report entitled ‘Journey to Mars’ in which it broke the challenge into three stages; Earth reliant, proving ground and Earth independent.
Currently experiments are being carried out on the International Space Station and in coming decades there are plans to establish a deep-space habitation which will act as stepping stone to Mars.
The final step will see human missions land on the Martian surface and set up colonies using modular architecture and 3-D printing. But they will need to be self-sufficient and make the best use of materials on the planet.
The new findings from MAVEN could give the best indications yet about levels of oxygen on Mars, and other useful elements which colonists could use.
Recent discoveries have shown that salt water which could sustain life is likely to be flowing on the planet.
4. A final surprise?
Nasa astronauts told their Twitter followers to stay tuned for an “exciting” announcement expected on Thursday, but it is not yet known if this linked to the Mars announcement or entirely separate.
Nasa will host its news conference on Thursday at 2pm EDT (7pm GMT)