Curiosity samples atmosphere on Mars

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Exploration > Loss of atmosphere turned planet into cold desert

By Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Curiosity rover has tasted Mars’ air: It’s made mostly of carbon dioxide with hints of other gases.

The measurements by the most advanced spacecraft to land on the red planet closely match what the twin Viking landers detected in the late 1970s and what scientists have gleaned from Martian meteorites — rock fragments that fell to Earth.

Mars’ atmosphere is overwhelmingly dominated by carbon dioxide, unlike Earth’s air, which is a mix of nitrogen and oxygen.

There was a small surprise: Viking found nitrogen to be the second most abundant gas in the Martian air, but Curiosity’s measurements revealed a nearly equal abundance of nitrogen and argon, a stable noble gas.
Mission scientists are puzzled, but suspect it might have to do with the different tools used to sample the atmosphere.

“It’s more or less an interesting observation” but doesn’t change the notion that Mars lost most of its original atmosphere to space, transforming the planet into a cold desert, said Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who is in charge of Curiosity’s air sampling experiments.