By adding a laser and an ion funnel to the mass spectrometer, researchers may be better equipped to finding life on Mars.
Since the atmospheric blanket of Mars is fast disappearing, NASA is planning a mission to Mars in 2013 to study the Red Planet in-depth.
The $400-million plus project, named the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), will investigate how the red planet lost most of its atmosphere. This will be critical in understanding whether there has been life on Mars or not.
"Previous observations gave us 'proof of the crime' but only provided tantalizing hints at how the sun pulls it off - the various ways Mars can lose its atmosphere to solar activity," said Joseph Grebowsky of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and project scientist for MAVEN.
One cause cited for the loss of atmosphere was the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emitted by the sun. Compared to Mars, the atmosphere on Earth is thicker and the planet still has a magnetic field that protects it from the solar radiation.
"Mars can't protect itself from the solar wind because it no longer has a shield, the planet's global magnetic field is dead," said Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado.
Mars lost its global magnetic field billions of years ago. Once its planet-wide magnetic field disappeared, its atmosphere was exposed to the solar wind, and could have been gradually stripped away, NASA said.
As the atmosphere thinned, the water on the planet evaporated and was lost to space. Increased ultraviolet radiation would also break water into its component atoms of hydrogen and oxygen.
"MAVEN will examine all known ways the sun is currently swiping the Martian atmosphere, and may discover new ones as well. It will also watch how the loss changes as solar activity changes over a year. Linking different loss rates to changes in solar activity will let us go back in time to estimate how quickly solar activity eroded the Martian atmosphere as the sun evolved," Grebowsky said.
Features on Mars resembling dry riverbeds, and the discovery of minerals that form in the presence of water, indicate that Mars once had a thicker atmosphere. However, it was lost due to exposure to solar radiation that quickly boils away water on the surface.
Such harsh conditions are the end of the road for known forms of life, but it is possible that the martian life went underground, where liquid water may still exist and radiation can't reach.
There are other theories as well. Mars has over 20 ancient craters larger than 600 miles across, scars from giant impacts by asteroids, of the size of small moons. This bombardment could have blasted large amounts of the martian atmosphere into space.
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the Solar System. The planet is named after the Roman god of war, Mars. It is often described as the "Red Planet" as the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance.
MAVEN is scheduled for launch between November 18 and Dec. 7, 2013. If it is launched on November 18, it will reach Mars on Sept. 16, 2014 for a year-long mission.
Lockheed Martin will develop the spacecraft, conduct assembly, test and launch operations, and provide mission operations at their Littleton, Colorado facility.
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