The atmosphere of Mars is less than 1 percent the density of Earth’s. It’s one of the reasons liquid water covers much of our planet but cannot exist on the Red Planet. As more research points toward the possibility of water on early Mars, scientists have increased their studies on the density of its atmosphere billions of years ago. It’s not an easy task. In fact, it’s very difficult to even determine Earth’s atmospheric pressure from the same time frame.
Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Josef Dufek is attempting to learn more about the past atmospheric conditions by analyzing two unlikely sources: ancient volcanic eruptions and surface observations by the Mars rover Spirit. His new findings, published by the journal Geophysical Research Letters, provide more evidence that early Mars was saturated with water and that its atmosphere was considerably thicker, at least 20 times more dense, than it is today.
“Atmospheric pressure has likely played a role in developing almost all Mars’ surface features,” said Dufek, an instructor in the School Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “The planet’s climate, the physical state of water on its surface and the potential for life are all influenced by atmospheric conditions.”
Dufek’s first research tool was a rock fragment propelled into the Martian atmosphere during a volcanic eruption roughly 3.5 billion years ago. The deposit landed in the volcanic sediment, created a divot (or bomb sag), eventually solidified and remains in the same location today. Dufek’s next tool was the Mars rover. In 2007, Spirit landed at that site, known as Home Plate, and took a closer look at the imbedded fragment. Dufek and his collaborators at the University of California-Berkeley received enough data to determine the size, depth and shape of the bomb sag.