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Unique Instrument Devised to Solve Mars' Atmosphere Mystery

By Nupur Jha on July 20, 2013 12:59 AM EDT 0

An artist's concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter during its critical Mars Orbit Insertion process. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is headed into a perilous phase after a seven-month journey from Earth, aiming to start looping around the Red Planet. (Photo: Reuters)

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which will commence later this year will be armed with a unique gadget to find about the Martian atmosphere billions years ago.

This mission aims at investigating the Red Planet's upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interfaces with the solar wind and the Sun. The objective of the mission MAVEN, is to understand whether Mars' atmosphere will support life or not.

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Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) is the instrument which will be used for estimating the atmosphere. It refers to a network of electrically charged rods that will measure the charged ions or gas particles which compose Mars' upper atmosphere.

The instrument is devised at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and it will gather information with the help of ions existing above the Red Planet.

Finding about the Martian atmosphere will help the scientists know and understand the conditions on Mars and its ability to shelter liquid water on its surface and aid life. Presently, the planet is arid with frozen water visible near its surface and has a temperature below freezing point.

"The data could be used to build models showing how Mars has lost the majority of its atmosphere, a phenomenon that continues to be one of the planet's greatest mysteries," said Paul Mahaffy, the spectrometer's principal investigator from Goddard.

The team would apply electrical voltages and radio frequency to the instrument's four metal cylinders, or quadrupole rods after the launch of MAVEN spacecraft.

The ions get isolated depending on their specific mass by the specific voltage. This will let NGIMS to form a profile of the diverse gas particles present in the Martian environment. The profile will be called mass spectrum. "We're basically sorting ions by mass," he added.

NGIMS is also capable of generating ions from neutral gas molecules apart from measuring the existent ions in the atmosphere.

A beam of electrons will be shot by an electron gun which will break the gas molecules into smaller, charged particles. NGIMS can gather information on all of the gas particles, both charged and neutral, in the upper atmosphere.

"Our part of the overall mission is to measure the neutral and ion composition of the atmosphere," Mahaffy said. "We're measuring ions that are already there and those that are created."

With the help of this instrument the composition present in the atmosphere and the alterations taking place in the gas particles with time during the day. The astronomers can use this information to form replications of the present Martian atmosphere and the atmosphere which existed billions of years back.

The researchers are trying to understand why Martian environment underwent drastic changes compared to the environment that prevailed billion years back. They also aim at scaling the solar activities taking place during the day, along with atmospheric compositions present in the latitude and longitude Mahaffy explained.

The scientists believe the solar wind is responsible for seizing most of Mars' atmosphere. The planet faces absence of magnetic field, which helps in maintaining the atmosphere in planets like Earth shields them from solar wind. 

The spectrometer, NGIMS will be positioned on a platform beneath the spacecraft, maintaining its distance from its own gases and letting it face different directions.

It will gather information when MAVEN is between about 93 and 311 miles (150 and 500 kilometers) above the planet. This collected data will be saved spacecraft's memory bank for several days before it's sent out globally to NASA's Deep Space Network satellites.

 NGIMS would counterpart other instruments on board, specially the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrometer, which would also measure gas composition.

"Both instruments get composition of the atmosphere and how it changes based on variables," Mahaffy further added. "Not only do the different instruments get different species, but we measure at different locations, and that's really helpful for understanding what the atmosphere is doing."

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