This image shows the first holes into rock drilled by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity

This image shows the first holes into rock drilled by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, with drill tailings around the holes plus piles of powdered rock collected from the deeper hole and later discarded after other portions of the sample had been delivered to analytical instruments inside the rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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VIENNA — Mars has lost much of its original atmosphere, but what’s left remains quite active, recent findings from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity indicate. Rover team members reported diverse findings today at the European Geosciences Union 2013 General Assembly, in Vienna.

Evidence has strengthened this month that Mars lost much of its original atmosphere by a process of gas escaping from the top of the atmosphere.

Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed an atmosphere sample last week using a process that concentrates selected gases. The results provided the most precise measurements ever made of isotopes of argon in the Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights. “We found arguably the clearest and most robust signature of atmospheric loss on Mars,” said Sushil Atreya, a SAM co-investigator at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

SAM found that the Martian atmosphere has about four times as much of a lighter stable isotope (argon-36) compared to a heavier one (argon-38). This removes previous uncertainty about the ratio in the Martian atmosphere from 1976 measurements from NASA’s Viking project and from small volumes of argon extracted from Martian meteorites. The ratio is much lower than the solar system’s original ratio, as estimated from argon-isotope measurements of the sun and Jupiter. This points to a process at Mars that favored preferential loss of the lighter isotope over the heavier one.

Curiosity measures several variables in today’s Martian atmosphere with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), provided by Spain. While daily air temperature has climbed steadily since the measurements began eight months ago and is not strongly tied to the rover’s location, humidity has differed significantly at different places along the rover’s route. These are the first systematic measurements of humidity on Mars.

via NASA – Remaining Martian Atmosphere Still Dynamic.