Curiosity team: Massive collision may have killed Red Planet


Sampling suggests Mars lost its atmosphere early in life

Curiosity's tunable laser spectrometer and quadrupole mass spectrometer, which make up part of Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory, took separate readings of the Martian atmosphere to sort out the elements and measure the pattern of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen isotopes, the papers report.

"As atmosphere was lost, the signature of the process was embedded in the isotopic ratio," said Paul Mahaffy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the principal investigator for SAM and lead author of one of the two papers about Curiosity.

The results were compared with the very crude readings taken from the 1976 Viking probes and with analysis of the isotope variation found in meteorites that have been blasted off Mars by eruptions or impacts. The new data fits current climate models, and NASA says it's confident about the results.

Written By: Iain Thomson
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  1. When I was taking planetary science in college the going idea was that Mars’s small mass couldn’t retain it’s atmosphere for very long and eventually the hot interior cooled (via lot’s of vulcanism) and Mars was dead. Earth, however, was hit by a Mars sized object and re-molted (and created our Moon). This made Earth’s core hot again and sort of gave Earth a restart. So now if Mars were hit by an object the size of Pluto would that be large enough to make Mars molten again, like the Earth was? I guess not but the article doesn’t really talk about this? Anyone know more? I’m sure there’s more up to date information than my 20 year old college courses. Maybe the Pluto sized object that may have hit Mars was only large enough to burn away the atmosphere, not make Mars molten. And how does this impact change the magnetic field if there’s no re-molting?

  2. In reply to #2 by Stafford Gordon:

    Darn! No Aliens.

    Well, there’s no evidence that there are now (there might be some kind of extremophiles, I suppose). In the past? I don’t see that this rules it out.

  3. This is so cool, almost too hard to believe that NASA could ship not only a “tunable laser spectrometer” but also a “quadrupole mass spectrometer” to Mars!

  4. One theory for what caused that shift from a relatively lush planet with a chance for life as we know it to develop to dustbowl is that a large object, possibly even a planetoid the size of Pluto, crashed into Mars early on in life. This disrupted the planet’s magnetic field and caused the loss of atmosphere.

    This seems rather speculative! The really big impacts were before the rocky planets established their crusts and more stable atmospheres. If such an event occurred there should be evidence of a very large crater.

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