back to article Sun of a b... Solar winds blamed for ripping away Mars' atmosphere

NASA thinks it now understands why Mars has lost so much of its atmosphere: the Sun stripped it virtually clean. About four billion years ago, solar winds blasting the Red Planet managed to turn it from a warm, moist world to the cold dry desert we see today, we're told. "To quote Bob Dylan, the answer is blowin' in the wind …

  1. Brian Miller 1

    Might it be an opportunity?

    If we understand very well the general shape of these solar winds, would it not be possible to create some sort of magnetic funnel and trap them instead of allowing them to remove atmosphere, force their path towards trajectories that capture all of these lovely sun goodies? Slowly replenish the atmosphere or at least stop the losses?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Might it be an opportunity?

      If we were capable of building a suitable magnetic field generator for an entire planet and getting it to Mars orbit, we probably wouldn't be bothering with such a complicated and slow solution. We'd just arrange a steady arrival of icy comets at the poles.

      1. Brian Miller 1

        Re: Might it be an opportunity?

        Surely it doesn't have to be that strong or large if it were placed in the correct place between the sun and mars, like a small magnetic lens which simply deflects the trajectories by a smidgeon. A tiny angle of deflection would equate to planet sized displacements far away.

        Also using superconductor coils would be my recommendation as opposed to masses of iron as it's bloody cold out there and superconductors love the cold.

        Don't really understand the down votes. But hey ho, half of all people are less than average intelligence. What is to understand about stupidity?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Might it be an opportunity?

          "Surely it doesn't have to be that strong or large if it were placed in the correct place between the sun and mars, like a small magnetic lens which simply deflects the trajectories by a smidgeon. "

          "Small" in this context is going to be somewhere in size between the Sun and Mars, depending on which it is closest too.

          "A tiny angle of deflection would equate to planet sized displacements far away."

          Yes, but you're applying your deflection to a cross sectional area of plasma which is bigger than a planet.

          "Also using superconductor coils would be my recommendation as opposed to masses of iron as it's bloody cold out there and superconductors love the cold."

          There's this big fusion reactor in the middle which is constantly pumping out heat. Your coils will heat up to a temperature roughly between that of Mercury and Mars depending on placement. Out there, the sun shines 24 hours a day. The size of refrigerator needed to get a planet-sized superconducting coil down from a couple of hundred kelvins to a few kelvins is going to be rather large.

          "Don't really understand the down votes."

          I'm sorry but it has to be said - that's because you don't have a grasp of even basic physics.

          "But hey ho, half of all people are less than average intelligence. What is to understand about stupidity?"

          You are not supid, but you are uninstructed.

          1. Brian Miller 1

            Re: Might it be an opportunity?

            Actually I have a PhD in Microfluidics, having done my undergrad in Mechatronics. I also have industrial experience as a controls and inst. engineer for gas turbines.

            A highly reflective surface and or shadowing the unit behind solar collectors which provide energy is a very workable solution.

            The cross section is not planet sized at a considerable distance from Mars. In the same way a coin held against a lightbulb casts a shadow far larger than itself on far away walls.

            My grasp of physics is fine thank you very much.

            I think you may suffer from a lack of vision.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Might it be an opportunity?

              "The cross section is not planet sized at a considerable distance from Mars. In the same way a coin held against a lightbulb casts a shadow far larger than itself on far away walls."

              I read your list of qualifications and note that optics is not one of them.

              The Sun is roughly 900 000 miles across. Using your coin and lightbulb example, how big would the coin need to be to provide the same shadowing at the same scale?

              It is easy to work out. If you draw a cone from the Sun to Mars with the base the Sun diameter and the frustrum the Mars diameter, that includes the path of every light ray from the Sun that reaches Mars.

              To obstruct all the light, therefore, a disc at any point along the cone must fully occupy the cone diameter. At half the Sun-Mars distance, for instance, the disc will be roughly half the Sun diameter. That's the area we need to fill with a magnetic field strong enough to deflect all the charged particles. (In reality as they are physical particles they have an angular velocity and it is a lot more complex, but in the direction of needing a bigger field generator.)

              tl;dr the Sun is a lot bigger than a light bulb so how big would the coin be? Answer; somewhere between the size of Mars and the Sun depending on distance.

              I can't avoid observing that in the context of your apparent ignorance of basic optics, accusing me of lack of vision is rather funny.

              1. jake Silver badge

                @Brian Miller 1 (was: Re: Might it be an opportunity?)

                "Surely it doesn't have to be that strong or large if it were placed in the correct place between the sun and mars, like a small magnetic lens"

                I suppose one could put a large enough object at L1 in the Sun-Mars system to do what you suggest. Care to guesstimate the energy costs to do the engineering[0], to place it there, to operate it, and to keep it in position long enough be cost effective?

                ::crickets:: ... That's what I thought.

                [0] The engineering of a technology that doesn't as yet exist, of course.

      2. annodomini2

        Re: Might it be an opportunity?

        Smack Ceres into it a sufficient velocity to re-melt the core, might take a few thousand year for the surface to cool enough for us to walk on it again.

        But what's a few Eons between friends.

    2. Graham Dawson Silver badge

      Re: Might it be an opportunity?

      Assuming we were capable of that sort of mega-engineering project (which we will be one day, one hopes), I'm not sure it'd be beneficial as such. You'd end up coating the planet with a lot of ionised hydrogen... that said, the surface of mars is absolutely loaded with oxidised iron and other oxides of various sorts. Blasting them with a hydrogen plasma might actually liberate a fair amount of water. Possibly. I'm mostly pulling ideas out of my butt right now.

      1. Little Mouse

        Re: Might it be an opportunity?

        Or, maybe, we could reverse the direction of the wind, pulling Mars' atmosphere back on again?

        It's so obvious I'm surprised no-one has tried it before.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Might it be an opportunity?

          "Or, maybe, we could reverse the direction of the [solar] wind, pulling Mars' atmosphere back on again?"

          Seriously?

          1. JetSetJim Silver badge
            Pint

            Re: Might it be an opportunity?

            >>"Or, maybe, we could reverse the direction of the [solar] wind, pulling Mars' atmosphere back on again?"

            >Seriously?

            I suspect not

            1. Tachikoma
              Facepalm

              Re: Might it be an opportunity?

              Just invert a tachyon pulse and funnel it through the main deflector, it's not that hard.

          2. Crisp
            Boffin

            Re: Or, maybe, we could reverse the direction of the [solar] wind..

            Of course! Reverse the polarity!

            1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

              Re: Or, maybe, we could reverse the direction of the [solar] wind..

              > Of course! Reverse the polarity!

              And, while you are at it, cross the streams!

            2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

              Re: Or, maybe, we could reverse the direction of the [solar] wind..

              Reverse the polarity!

              Came for this comment. Was not disappointed.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Might it be an opportunity?

          "Or, maybe, we could reverse the direction of the wind, pulling Mars' atmosphere back on again?"

          Clearly we need a Dyson - vacuum not sphere.

    3. Graham Marsden

      Re: Might it be an opportunity?

      > create some sort of magnetic funnel

      If we could do that, we'd be building Bussard Ramjets first and sending probes to Alpha Centauri et al!

    4. Wzrd1

      Re: Might it be an opportunity?

      It's easy enough to do. Melt a metallic core the size of our moon, set the molten outer core flowing and you've got a magnetic field. Set the tangled field correctly and you can capture all of the hydrogen and helium that you could ever want.

    5. TheRealRoland

      Re: Might it be an opportunity?

      Amy and Nibbler might have a solution as well!

  2. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
    Joke

    Easy!

    Send all the politicians, they tend to generate LOTS of hot air. Pulling together they should be able to regenerate an atmosphere in no time. It might be a nasty atmosphere, given the source, but at least it's an atmosphere

    Bit like the B-Ark idea, only without the telephone sanitizers

  3. Youngone Silver badge

    I call BullSh*t

    It was an enormous mutant star-goat.

    I'm sure that's right.

  4. Dani Eder

    Subtitle error

    The article subtitle says "Terraforming Red Planet going to be much harder than thought". This is erroneous, since the background loss rate (100 g/s) divided into the mass of the atmosphere gives a 7 billion year life. When combined with solar storms, we still get a "half life" of 500 million years. Half-life is the appropriate measure, because the loss rate is proportional to how much atmosphere there is to lose. If we can terraform the atmosphere in the first place, we can certainly compensate for leakage of 1% every ten million years.

    The idea of terraforming the whole planet, though, is not reasonable unless you have many millions of people living there. It is more sensible to terraform only the area under your habitat domes, where the people are. Since outside pressure of the Martian atmosphere is much lower than Earth-normal pressure, the dome is a "pressure vessel" in the engineering sense. It turns out the minimum load is when the weight of the dome is equal to the pressure inside. On Mars that is 25 tons per square meter. It doesn't matter what you use to weight the dome, glass or rock. But when you put that much matter overhead, it is effective radiation shielding, even better in fact than the 10 tons per square meter of our Earth's atmosphere.

    As the population grows, you keep building more domes, until you dome over the entire planet. At that point you have solved both the radiation and atmosphere leakage problems.

    1. Graham Dawson Silver badge

      Re: Subtitle error

      You've also created Trantor mk1.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Subtitle error

      > "On Mars that is 25 tons per square meter."

      You are proposing people live under domes with 25 tons PSM loading, and held up primarily by air pressure? And what happens if that air pressure declines (even a little) for any reason?

    3. Martin Budden Bronze badge

      Re: Subtitle error

      The problem with a dome is your survival is utterly reliant on a single breakable thing. No second chances. Terraforming is a LOT more work but once done you can't accidentally pop it.

      1. Crisp

        Re: With a dome is your survival is utterly reliant on a single breakable thing

        So we need a double skinned dome! If one of them breaks, you've got another redundant backup to hold the atmosphere in while you make repairs.

        1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge
          Paris Hilton

          Re: With a dome is your survival is utterly reliant on a single breakable thing

          @Crisp, "redundant backup" - So, when both domes are intact, one dome is held up by air pressure, what is holding the other one up?

    4. wayne 8

      Re: Mars Dome

      I have Total Recall about domes on Mars. I was a secret agent...

    5. Filippo

      Re: Subtitle error

      I think the point of the subtitle is that, previously, we thought the atmosphere mostly was gone due to reacting with stuff in the ground and therefore could be somehow recovered. That said, I agree with everything you mentioned.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Subtitle error -25 tons per square meter

      The Earth's atmospheric pressure is around 10 tonnes (actually 100kN) per square metre. That is the pressure required to create the density we're used to at the surface.

      So what would it be on Mars? Answer: still 10 tonnes per square metre. Think of it like this: if you take a pressure vessel and fill it with air at the Earth's surface, and then move it to orbit, the pressure is still going to be 10t/sqM. The only function of the Earth's gravity is to oppose the pressure in the atmosphere which has no containment vessel. But the pressure is created by the motion of the air molecules, not by gravity.

      Concrete has a density of roughly 3t/cubic M but on Mars the gravitational force on it will be only around 1.1t. That would imply a dome thickness of 9M to create a dome which had zero tensile loading, but that really would be silly. As you wouldn't be able to see out of it, unless you can also make 12M thick glass windows, tunnelling would make far more sense.

      I wonder how many people would volunteer to become one of Mar's new troglodyte underlords?

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Subtitle error

      "This is erroneous, since the background loss rate (100 g/s) divided into the mass of the atmosphere gives a 7 billion year life"

      That 100 g/s rate is the _current_ rate i.e. from a body that has already lost >99% of its atmosphere - it simply doesn't have enough atmosphere left to lose it at a higher rate. Furthermore, what atmosphere Mars does have left is 95% CO2, which is relatively heavy; if you were to start adding relatively light Oxygen to the atmosphere of Mars not only would the loss rate increase but it would be the lighter gases, such as the Oxygen, that that made up most of that increase.

  5. Quortney Fortensplibe

    F-ing TFY

    "...taking a couple of hundred years to switch..."

    *Sigh!*

  6. jake Silver badge

    Uh ...

    ... I'm pretty certain that we knew how and why the martian atmosphere blew away back in the 1960s ...

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Uh ...

      Solar erosion was known of in the late 1970s, but there were still questions about how much of the atmosphere had been blown into space compared to the amount sequestered in the soil as adsorbed and frozen carbon dioxide, converted to carbonates through silicate weathering and trapped as nitrate deposits.

      Now we know the lithosphere contains approximately bugger/all.

  7. Paul J Turner

    What's that smell?...

    Venus is closer to the Sun, has no planetary magnetic field and still has a thick dense atmosphere. Any other bright ideas? - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus

    1. Someonehasusedthathandle

      Re: What's that smell?...

      Wow, you just tried to one up a bloke from NASA using a Wikipedia link.

      That aside, the article you linked too actually has a paragraph explaining solar winds effects on Venus's atmosphere.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus#Magnetic_field_and_core

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What's that smell?...

        Venus - the most interesting chemistry and physics lab in the Solar System, with deuterium perhaps the commonest form of hydrogen and snow that may be either tellurium or lead sulfide. And nobody is going to be able to visit it. If there is a God I don't think much of her sense of humour.

      2. Mike Richards Silver badge

        Re: What's that smell?...

        Have a recommend, and here's another link this time to Venus Express which did a lot of work on atmospheric evolution on Venus:

        http://sci.esa.int/venus-express/50246-a-magnetic-surprise-for-venus-express/

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What's that smell?...

      Re Venus's atmosphere: "thick dense" - there's the clue.

  8. TeeCee Gold badge

    This is supposed to be new?

    As I am not a bloody clairvoyant I think we can safely assume it isn't and we knew this already....

  9. John Tserkezis

    I was under the impression this idea isn't new at all.

    Basic gist of it is that mars doesn't have a fluid core like we do, which in turn creates a magnetic field like we have. Since that is what deflects the solar winds, it'll strip of any atmosphere that's left over.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
      Coat

      So what we really need to do is fluidify the core. I seem to remember a film dealing with that kind of notion . . . right ! Send the nukes !

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        See? Elon Musk was right after all. *fondles big red button*

  10. schlechtj

    venus anyone

    Hard to believe that this is the whole story given the fact that Venus also does not generate a magnetic field. Venus is two whole planets closer to the Sun but has the thickest atmosphere of all the inner planets by far. The difference between Earth and Venus is almost as great as Mars and Earth. The Venutions are asking where did Earths atmosphere go?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: venus anyone

      The Wikipedia article does explain it. In the absence of tectonics and subduction there's no method of removing the carbon dioxide and a lot of the water, which on Earth end up in rock (what's limestone? There are whole mountain ranges made of it, e.g. the Dolomites). Result is runaway greenhouse effect. Hydrogen gets knocked off by solar wind, carbon dioxide is too heavy and stays more or less put. Result is a planet where a lot of the hydrogen is deuterium and there is no mechanism for removing the carbon dioxide.

      Plate tectonics and early plants did such a thorough job that we ended up with the snowball Earth, and it's hypothesised that only the eruption of really large volcanoes repopulated the atmosphere to allow warming to restart. There is no guarantee that any set of initial conditions will not end up at an extreme rather than comfortably in the middle.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    WTF?

    What?

    How is this new? They have been saying this for a decade or two at the least.

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: What?

      Once in a while, science involves gathering evidence and seeing whether it supports or contradicts a hypothesis, rather than just assuming the hypothesis is true because someone said it a decade ago.

  12. BitDr
    Meh

    This is old news...

    For anyone who pays attention to these kinds of things this is really old news.

    January 31, 2001

    New evidence from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft supports a long-held suspicion that much of the Red Planet's atmosphere was simply blown away -- by the solar wind.

    Source: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast31jan_1/

    1. Lars Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: This is old news...

      The MAVEN spacecraft confirms what NASA expected, they are after all studying just that, right!. Still worth the article, and who knows, perhaps there are readers here who did not read stuff like this in 2001.

  13. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

    No-one mentioned?

    The asymmetric solar plume? What is the mechanism that causes that?

    And BitDr, Lostyearsago, jake - sure, the "no magnetic field, atmosphere blown away by solar wind" has been the leading theory for years, but it's a bloody good job to actually confirm that!

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