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Celebrating Two Years Of Mars Express Discoveries

by Yury Zaitsev
Moscow, Russia (SPX) Jan 27, 2006
Mars Express, the spacecraft launched by the European Space Agency into a near Martian orbit, will have been in business for two years in January 2006. This project - the successor to Russia's Mars-96 - has been a major achievement of European and Russian planetary science.

The craft carries seven scientific instruments to do research similar to the Mars-96 program, and even uses spare OMEGA (Observatoire pour la Mineralogie, l'Eau, les Glaces et l'Activite) spectrometers designed for the Russian station to obtain stereoscopic images of the planet's surface. European Union scientists are in charge of all experiments on Mars Express. Russian researchers are taking part officially in six experiments and enjoy equal rights with their European colleagues, to the scientific findings.

The measurements carried out by instruments jointly developed by Russian and West European scientists have produced some important results, with many of them now being prepared for publication.

Mars' atmospheric structure has now been established with a high degree of precision from surface to altitudes of between 100 and 150 kilometers, and its temperature profile up to 50-55 kilometers.

For the first time we now have data on water vapor and ozone present in the atmosphere, and maps showing their distribution.

A new discovery is the night glow of nitrogen monoxide, known to exist on Venus, but never observed on Mars until now. Tiny aerosol particles filling the planet's atmosphere up to altitudes of 70-100 kilometers have been detected.

For the first time water ice has been discovered in the southern polar cap at the end of Martian summers. Maps compiled from OMEGA data, with a resolution of 1 to 3 kilometers, show patches of water ice near the fringes of more extensive areas of frozen carbon dioxide. Its thickness does not exceed several meters, and underneath is a deep-buried layer of water ice, possibly equivalent in amount to the northern polar cap, which is entirely made up of water ice with a small percentage (less than 1%) of dust.

The OMEGA instrument has also completed mineralogical mapping of most of the planet and, for all the variety of minerals present, has failed to detect carbonates (salts of the carbonic acid). They are widespread on Earth and it is their deposits rather than living matter, coal and oil, that concentrate the principal quantity of carbon on this planet. So Mars Express findings do not confirm the presence of CO2 on Mars sufficient to significantly alter the mass of its atmosphere, and, accordingly, change the planet's climate.

One of the important results has been the discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere, following a long and futile search. Its content was determined at 105 parts per billion. Of course, this is a very small amount, but since the methane keeps disintegrating in the atmosphere, due to photo-dissociation, there has to be a source producing something like 300 tons of methane a year, to keep up the balance in the Martian atmosphere. Such a source could be tectonic activity.

At present Mars is considered tectonically inactive, but the methane in its atmosphere may be due to "point" tectonics: residual volcanism or geothermal activity.

Nevertheless, developed specially to look for such "hot spots," an infra-red radiometer installed on the American Mars Odyssey spacecraft has not yet detected any.

The comets and meteorites falling on Mars can yield only 2-4% of the methane required. So even the most exotic theories cannot be ruled out, including the existence of the cryosphere on the lower border - that is, at a depth of two kilometers, of gasohydrate deposits, and even of methane-generating bacteria, similar to the ones detected in the Earth's deep-lying ecosystems.

Are these highly interesting facts only good to fuel human curiosity, or do they have any practical application?

There is a link between planetary science and Earth sciences - an inter-disciplinary field called comparative planetology. Its essence is that various processes in the atmospheres of Venus and Mars, and on a number of other planets, can be interpreted in terms of terrestrial processes.

In fact, a history of this planet's climate is directly recorded in the geological chronicles of sedimentary rocks, providing a picture of habitation on Earth and its changes up to the moment life appeared on the planet. But even this highly valuable information is often hard to interpret in a simple and straightforward way. Data about the other planets help to decipher the Earth's geological record.

Similarities to other planets help to glimpse not only the past but also the future of the Earth, and to understand how stable our planet's climatic system is. Is it true that an increase in man-generated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere threatens to alter the conditions of habitat? Can slight changes in temperature caused by the increased content of CO2 result in an irreversible build-up of water vapor in the atmosphere and a greenhouse disaster?

Here instrument-based space research on other planets can be helpful, too. Their atmospheres and climatic systems are an excellent bench mark to test all kinds of theories and models of the Earth's future - often advanced on disparate conclusions and with many assumptions. With no biospheric factor to take into account, the climatic systems of other planets are much simpler and easier to describe, and model in quantitative terms, and can provide a sort of natural reference.

Yury Zaitsev is an expert with the Russian Academy of Science' Institute of Space Research.

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