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Scientists have released the first results from NASA’s MAVEN probe orbiting Mars, designed to study that planet’s upper atmosphere.
As expected, the spacecraft has quickly found evidence of the Martian atmosphere leaking away into space.
Hydrogen appears to be leaving the planet’s atmosphere in clumps and streams that reach about 10 Mars radii into space, said Mike Chaffin, a MAVEN scientist also at the University of Colorado, who discussed the results at a 14 October news briefing. The hydrogen comes from water vapour that breaks apart in the upper atmosphere; because hydrogen is so much lighter than oxygen, it escapes into space relatively easily. “That’s effectively removing water from the Martian atmosphere,” says Chaffin.
Other images show oxygen and carbon drifting away from the planet, although these heavier atoms cluster closer to Mars than hydrogen. Deep within the atmosphere, oxygen forms ozone molecules that accumulate near Mars’s south pole.