Scientists have detected atomic oxygen in Mars’ mesosphere, the upper layers of its atmosphere. Accordingly, their discovery published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics will help researchers to better understand the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

The research team admits that they detected only about half the amount of oxygen they expected, possibly due to variations in the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The atomic oxygen will not only help scientists figure out atmospheric erosion, it can also allow them to determine how other gases escape Mars.

This year’s observation marks the first time in four decades since NASA’s Viking and Mariner missions’ last measurements of atomic oxygen in the 1970s. The discovery was made thanks to an instrument onboard the German Aerospace Centre and NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

atomic oxygen

Self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Credit: NASA

SOFIA, a Boeing 747SP jet airliner, flew between 37,000 through 45,000 feet or between 11.2 kilometres to 13.7 km high above Earth’s atmosphere. The advanced detectors allowed the scientists to set apart Earth’s atmospheric oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere oxygen.

The scientists will still study the variation that affected the atomic oxygen levels in the Martian atmosphere using SOFIA. Nevertheless, they assert that detecting oxygen in the past has not always been easy.

“Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure,” adds Pamela Marcum, a SOFIA project scientist. “To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer. SOFIA provides both capabilities.”

While no alien life can be found in the Red Planet now, another research team from the University of Colorado Boulder recently claimed that the impact from massive comets and asteroids have made Mars habitable for a few million years. This event is also known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, which occurred about 3.9 billion years ago.