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06-22-2024

Air samples from Mars could reveal fascinating secrets

NASA’s Perseverance rover has been tirelessly collecting rock and soil samples on Mars. These samples are key to understanding the Red Planet‘s history and whether life ever existed there. But, hidden within these sample tubes, like a secret message, lies a potential treasure trove for atmospheric scientists – the Martian air.

Not just rocks and regolith

“Atmospheric scientists get a little more excited with every rock core NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover seals in its titanium sample tubes,” noted one of the researchers involved in the Mars Sample Return campaign.

While the rock and regolith samples directly provide insights into Mars’ geological composition and potential for past or present life, the trapped air, or “headspace,” offers a unique and complementary perspective. 

This air, sealed within the sample tubes alongside the solid materials, serves as a time capsule, preserving the atmospheric conditions at the time and location of collection. 

By analyzing the composition and properties of this headspace air, scientists can glean valuable information about Mars’ ancient and current climate, the evolution of its atmosphere, and the presence of trace gases that could shed light on the planet’s habitability and history.

Martian atmosphere: A time capsule

The Martian atmosphere, composed mainly of carbon dioxide, might contain trace amounts of other gases that have been around since the planet‘s formation. Studying this trapped air could help us understand how the Martian climate has changed over billions of years.

“The air samples from Mars would tell us not just about the current climate and atmosphere, but how it’s changed over time. It will help us understand how climates different from our own evolve,” explained Brandi Carrier, a planetary scientist at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A unique window into Mars’ water cycle

The air trapped in the sample tubes is not just any Martian air. It has been interacting with the rock samples inside the tubes for years, creating a unique microenvironment.

Analyzing this “headspace” air will give scientists insight into the amount of water vapor present near the Martian surface. This information is crucial for understanding why ice forms where it does on Mars and how the planet’s water cycle has evolved.

Trace gases in Mars samples

The possible presence of noble gases within the Martian atmosphere represents a tantalizing scientific opportunity. Noble gases, such as neon, argon, and xenon, are known for their chemical inertness, meaning they rarely react with other elements. 

Due to this property, these gases could have persisted in the Martian atmosphere relatively unchanged since the planet’s formation billions of years ago. 

Analyzing the isotopic ratios and abundances of the noble gases could provide crucial insights into the initial composition of Mars’ atmosphere, whether it was present from the beginning or developed later, and how it has evolved over time. 

Furthermore, comparing the noble gas profiles of Mars and Earth could illuminate the processes involved in the formation and evolution of planetary atmospheres in our solar system.

The headspace could also provide valuable information about the size and toxicity of Martian dust particles. This data will be crucial for protecting future astronauts who venture to the Red Planet.

Apollo’s air: A lesson from the moon

The study of lunar samples returned by Apollo 17 has already demonstrated the feasibility and value of analyzing gases trapped in extraterrestrial materials. 

Although the Moon is commonly perceived as airless, it possesses a tenuous atmosphere that interacts with the lunar surface. 

Justin Simon, a geochemist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, detailed how his team successfully extracted and analyzed gases from a 50-year-old lunar sample using a cold trap, a technique that involves rapidly cooling the gas to condense and separate its components. 

This same methodology could be applied to the Martian air samples collected by Perseverance, providing valuable insights into the composition and evolution of the Martian atmosphere.

Unraveling planetary evolution with Mars samples

The Martian air trapped within the Perseverance sample tubes is not just a scientific curiosity; it’s a potential game-changer. Studying it will help us understand how planets form and evolve, making it relevant to scientists across various disciplines.

“Even scientists who don’t study Mars would be interested because it will shed light on how planets form and evolve,” explained Simon, who is a key member of the team deciding which samples Perseverance collects.

The Martian air samples might be small, but their potential impact is enormous. They could unlock secrets about Mars’ past, present, and future, providing valuable insights for both scientific exploration and human missions to the Red Planet.

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