NASA’s MAVEN Gives New Clues on Martian Climate

December 16, 2019

by Andreea Sterea

Studying NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft’s new findings regarding Mars winds, scientists learned new things about the Martian climate. The data offers new perspectives on the Red Planet’s past and future.

What is MAVEN and What Does it Research?

MAVEN – short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN – is NASA’s first spacecraft specifically designed to study the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere. The mission’s goal is to understand better the evolution of the Martian climate. Celebrating its fifth anniversary since its entrance into orbit around Mars earlier this year, the MAVEN surprised NASA scientists with “unexpected and surprising” information

The MAVEN was studying Martian winds from up above in space. However, while it measured wind speed and wind directions in the top layer of the Martian atmosphere, MAVEN discovered that Mars’s land features were disturbing the high-altitude wind currents. In other words, while exploring the edge of space, MAVEN can sense the mountains and the valleys below on the planet’s surface. 

As MAVEN orbits Mars, scientists put together all the generated data to create a map of wind behavior. What they found was that the Martian wind patterns correlated with the planet’s topography below.

NASA created a video to illustrate the wind map on Mars and discuss why the findings are important for understanding both the Red Planet and Earth as well. 

What Do MAVEN’s Discoveries Mean?

The Red Planet features deep valleys and high mountains – just like our planet. The Martian topography forces the winds above and around these landforms. As the topography disturbes the winds on the surface, they generate echos of wind patterns in the Martian thermosphere.

The patterns are atmospheric gravity waves (which you should not mistake for gravitational waves). MAVEN can detect the planet’s surface location of valleys and mountains – despite its orbiting at the edges of space – when winds on Mars are forced around and above its topography and create gravity waves. 

This particular discovery was the first detection of topography-induced gravity wave ripples in the thermosphere of Mars. In fact, it was the first detection of such phenomenon in the thermosphere of any planet, Earth included. 

In the video created by NASA to explain the MAVEN findings, the scientists say:

“Early in its history, Mars had a far more hospitable climate than the one that we see today, with a thick atmosphere and abundant flowing water. So how did it evolve from warm and wet to cold and dry?

What Can We Expect Next from the MAVEN Mission?

The MAVEN scientists’ next goal is to further study these gravity waves depending on different Martian seasons and locations. Their plan is to enhance knowledge and improve our understanding of thermospheric winds. Of course, all such new discoveries lead to improving the understanding of physic fundamentals. In between the search for alien life in the neighborhood and understanding how the Sun works, NASA’s scientists may also discover new things about Earth by studying Mars.

If this is not the greatest time to be alive, we don’t know what is! 

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