Atomic Oxygen Found On Mars

When an oxygen atom exists as itself, chemists call it atomic oxygen. But why should we be so excited to find this in Mars' atmosphere?

NASA and the German Aerospace Center recently made an announcement that flew a bit under the radar, as it were, down here on Earth: It seems that scientists have spotted atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere, which could potentially tell us quite a lot about life on Mars, both in the past and present tense.

As Ian O'Neill explains in this Seeker Daily special report, the development was notable not only for what scientists found -- more on atomic oxygen in a bit -- but also how they found it.

Technicians deployed the SOFIA telescope, which is essentially an airborne observatory -- an advanced reflecting telescope strapped to a converted Boeing 747. When flown at its cruising altitude of 41,000 feet, the SOFIA telescope can get a much clearer view of space than anything we can manage on the ground.

As such, the SOFIA was able to make the first direct measurements of atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere since the Viking and Mariner missions first spotted the stuff in the 1970s.

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Atomic oxygen is a highly reactive form of the oxygen we breathe, which is two atoms of oxygen bonded together, or O2. When an oxygen atom goes solo, it's referred to as atomic oxygen. These free oxygen atoms atoms are very needy -- they tend to grab onto other chemicals like carbon, nitrogen or even other other oxygen atoms, creating breathable O2.

Atomic oxygen is rare on Earth, at sea level anyway. But by measuring how much of the stuff is in the Martian atmosphere, we can deduce a lot of additional information about the planet and its past.

For instance, scientists suspect that Mars used to be a lot warmer and wetter than it is now. Those conditions are much more favorable for microbial life. Microbes also appreciate a healthy ozone (O3) layer, and the SOFIA telescope can detect and measure that, too.

By understanding how the different types of oxygen evolve over time, we can gain an insight as to how much breathable oxygen and how much ozone were around in Mars' past. These conclusions, in turn, can help us determine whether there used to be life on Mars -- and if so, whether it may still lurking under those spooky red rocks.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More: Atomic Oxygen on Mars Detected by Flying Telescope

SOFIA Science Center: Science Behind SOFIA