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Mars Oxygen?

Mars Oxygen?

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Wednesday, November 13, 2019/Categories: natural history, space science, sustainability, environment, adventure

                                                 Gale Crater, Mars (credit: Curiosity Rover, NASA)

NASA's Curiosity rover has made a new and puzzling discovery in Gale Crater on Mars. Seasonal emissions of molecular oxygen (O2) have been detected in the surface atmosphere in the crater. The discovery was reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR). According the the researchers, The atmosphere of Mars consists primarily of carbon dioxide but the Curiosity rover has now acquired atmospheric composition measurements at the ground level over multiple years. The yearly composition in Gale Crater was 95.1% carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.59% nitrogen (N2), 1.94% argon (Ar), 0.161% oxygen (O2), and 0.058% carbon monoxide (CO). The abundance of some of these gases varied up to 40% throughout the year on Mars. Oxygen levels showed significant variability during the spring and summer months, suggesting an unknown atmospheric or surface process in its production. The researchers are investigating if the chemistry may be similar to what’s driving the natural seasonal variations of methane may also be driving the production of oxygen as the two gases fluctuate together.


   Seasonal O2 measurements, Gale Crater, Mars 2012-2017 (credit: NASA Melissa Trainer/Dan Gallagher)

Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said:

“We’re struggling to explain this. The fact that the oxygen behavior isn’t perfectly repeatable every season makes us think that it is not an issue that has to do with atmospheric dynamics. It has to be some chemical source and sink that we can’t yet account for.”

A summary of the new oxygen findings is explained in a short video.

What has not been so far mentioned is the potential for the oxygen to be the result of a biological process. Photosynthesis by single cell bluegreen algae produces oxygen on Earth by metabolizing water molecules. NASA will launch a new Mars rover in 2020 and maybe it will carry some instruments that can determine the actual source for both oxygen and methane that have been measure seasonally on Mars.



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