Detail Mars Rover Clues to Atmosphere's Past

July 18, 2013

PASADENA, Calif. – A pair of new papers report measurements of the Martian atmosphere's composition by NASA's Curiosity rover, providing evidence about loss of much of Mars' original atmosphere.

Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of laboratory instruments inside the rover has measured the abundances of different gases and different isotopes in several samples of Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same chemical element with different atomic weights due to having different numbers of neutrons, such as the most common carbon isotope, carbon-12, and a heavier stable isotope, carbon-13.

SAM checked ratios of heavier to lighter isotopes of carbon and oxygen in the carbon dioxide that makes up most of the planet's atmosphere. Heavy isotopes of carbon and oxygen are both enriched in today's thin Martian atmosphere compared with the proportions in the raw material that formed Mars, as deduced from proportions in the sun and other parts of the solar system. This provides not only supportive evidence for the loss of much of the planet's original atmosphere, but also a clue to how the loss occurred.

"As atmosphere was lost, the signature of the process was embedded in the isotopic ratio," said Paul Mahaffy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. He is the principal investigator for SAM and lead author of one of the two papers about Curiosity results in the July 19 issue of the journal Science.