Atomic oxygen detected on Mars´atmosphere

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) detected atomic oxygen (O) in the mesosphere of Mars. O is known to affect the way in which varied gases are able to escape the Martian atmosphere. Positioned above most of the earth´s atmosphere, SOFIA made observations of the Martian atmosphere in far-infrared wavelengths.

This has been the first attempt in a long time since the Mariner and Viking missions measured the quantities of O (oxygen) of Mars' atmosphere. Flying in between 7-8.5 miles, SOFIA was clear of the infrared moisture of the earth´s atmosphere, thus being able to conduct reliable measurements.

O singleoxygen?

Atomic oxygen O is one single atom of oxygen and is highly reactive, as single atoms tend to interact with molecules to form compounds. It does not last long as a single atom on the earth´s surface due to the fact that it's very reactive; however, in space where abundance of ultraviolet radiation exists, it´s easily broken down into atomic oxygen.

What is SOFIA?

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP airplane that is equipped with a 2.5 meteraperture telescope. A High Resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus (HAWC+) in the far-infrared light. This camera allows the study of star and planet´s early stages of formation. It can also measure the magnetic fields of new forming stars and supermassive black holes.

This is a partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center.

The quantities of atomic oxygen found on the Martian atmosphere were around half of the ones expected. The oxygen column density was calculated at 1.1 + 0.2 x 1017 cm-2, which is low considering the photochemical characteristics of Mars. The results showed that the line forms in the upper atmospheric region which extends from 70-120 km (43-75 miles).


The observation was posible using the advanced German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT). This was the first attempt after 40 years, after vicking and Mariner measured it back in the 70s, to record the amounts of atomic oxygen on Mars. The absorption leves provide an approximation of the column density. Future studies with SOFIA on the martian surface and other astronomical bodies are likely to continue.