There may be no busier research notebook than the one in the hands of a scientist exploring information concerning the Red Planet these days. Mars is a hot topic in the scientific community and with each discovery it gets a little bit hotter. Evidence of water on the planet was exciting enough, but now there is evidence of oxygen atoms on Mars as well.
NASA has been measuring oxygen levels on Mars since the 1970s. Today, the equipment NASA uses is a bit more advanced than it was even in the late 20th century. To be more specific, it relies on SOFIA for much of its research.
SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, is a modified 747 used to explore atmospheric conditions. This Boeing 747SP jetliner had to be modified for many reasons, but the one of most interest to scientists exploring the universe is the telescope on board. SOFIA’s telescope measures out with a 100 inch diameter—not your average star gazing tool.
History of Oxygen on Mars
Though the news is exciting enough to make one think that oxygen is a new development on Mars, it is the opposite that is true. There is far less oxygen on the Red Planet today than there was years ago, though it is difficult to measure exactly how many years ago or what happened to cause this drop in oxygen levels.
One way that scientists measure the oxygen level on the planet is to investigate geological findings. Rocks and other materials can reflect mineral content in the atmosphere over time. In this case, the content was observed through careful research of rocks found on Mars. What they found was that 3% of the rocks on Mars contained manganese oxide. In order for that to happen, at some point Mars must have had a higher level of oxygen atoms, as well as water.
It’s also important to note that the measurements taken were taken in the upper atmosphere. This is key, because the amount of oxygen atoms in the upper atmosphere plays a significant part in the release of other atoms in the upper atmosphere. At this point, oxygen levels are only half of what was expected, and the atmosphere on Mars is 95% carbon dioxide.
Because scientists are saying that the planet has only half the oxygen that was expected, it can be assumed that calculations were made that offered some idea of what the levels could be. Those calculations had to be done based on assumed figures—figures which must have been determined based on the most current information combined with what is known about the behavior of planets and their atmospheres.
What this means is that the oxygen levels on Mars didn’t just change the way scientists look at current conditions. They might also change what is understood about atmospheres in relation to their position to the sun or other elements, like details about the activities and changes on the sun itself. In any case, it’s back to the research notebook to review notes and come up with new possibilities.