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Atomic Oxygen on Mars Atmosphere
Jun 13, 2016

An instrument onboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) detected atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars for the first time since the last observation 40 years ago.

Key Points

  • These atoms were found in the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere known as the mesosphere.
  • Atomic oxygen affects how other gases escape Mars and therefore has a significant impact on the planet’s atmosphere.
  • Scientists detected only about half the amount of oxygen expected, which may be due to variations in the Martian atmosphere.
  • Scientists will continue to use SOFIA to study these variations to help better understand the atmosphere of the Red Planet.
  • Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is very difficult to measure.
  • To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer.
  • SOFIA provides both capabilities.
  • The Viking and Mariner missions of the 1970s made the last measurements of atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere.
  • These more recent observations were possible thanks to SOFIA’s airborne location, flying between 37,000-45,000 feet, above most of the infrared-blocking moisture in Earth’s atmosphere.
  • The advanced detectors on one of the observatory’s instruments, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), enabled astronomers to distinguish the oxygen in the Martian atmosphere from oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere.

What is SOFIA?

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center's hangar 703 in Palmdale, California.

atomic oxygenUnderstanding Atomic Oxygen?

  • Oxygen comes in several different forms. The oxygen that we breathe is called O2—that is, it is comprised of two atoms of oxygen.
  • O3 is ozone, such as occurs in Earth's upper atmosphere.
  • (one atom) is atomic oxygen.  Atomic oxygen doesn't exist naturally for very long on the surface of Earth, as it is very reactive. But in space, where there is plenty of ultraviolet radiation, O2 molecules are more easily broken apart to create atomic oxygen.
  • The atmosphere in low Earth orbit is comprised of about 96% atomic oxygen. In the early days of NASA's space shuttle missions, the presence of atomic oxygen caused problems. Atomic oxygen reacts with organic materials on spacecraft exteriors, gradually damaging them.

Glenn Research Center was asked to investigate the damage caused to NASA spacecraft by atomic oxygen. The researchers not only invented methods to protect spacecraft from atomic oxygen; they also discovered a way to harness the potentially destructive power of atomic oxygen and use it to improve life on Earth.

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