Mars research review tells story of the red planet’s atmosphere

Mars is the second most extensively studied planet in our solar system after Earth. There are indications that the red planet was once habitable like our own, which has captured the attention of scientists who want to understand the history of Mars’ environment and how it reached its present state.

Dr. Erdal Yiğit, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Mason, has brought together these studies in a single review to reveal the interactions and couplings of the Martian atmosphere as a whole. He believes that understanding the physics, chemistry, and dynamics of Mars’ weather could also help us understand the history of Earth and other planets in our solar system.

In a recently published article in Nature Geoscience, Yiğit reviews studies on separate atmosphere layers and analyzes how these layers interact with one another and the phenomena that result from these interactions. Despite the abundance of data about Mars, Yiğit believes that atmospheric coupling, which brings different areas together to view their interactions, is still relatively unexplored but is essential for understanding the planet’s history.

His review has uncovered that meteorological processes, such as waves and dust storms, play a crucial role in the loss of water from Mars’ upper atmosphere, particularly during global-scale dust storms. This loss could have contributed significantly to the current barren and cold weather on Mars.

Yiğit is one of the few scientists worldwide studying whole planetary atmospheres. In 2016, he was awarded the Zeldovich medal by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) and the Russian Academy of Sciences for his significant contributions to the study of coupling between the lower and upper atmospheres by gravity waves on Earth and Mars. For the past few years, he and a group of collaborators have been carving out this new research area.

By applying their work to Earth, researchers can now understand why orbiting satellites detect disturbances in the outermost atmospheric layer by examining the weather patterns and waves that propagate upward from the Earth’s surface. Yiğit uses global scale models, gravity wave models, and satellite observations to study various long-range coupling processes. Established computation and modeling tools are used by researchers to combine measurements with lower-level wave generation to understand Earth’s systems more fully.

Yiğit explained that scientists use specific computation and modeling tools to study Earth and develop and refine theories. He added that scientists see the same basic physics on Mars and can use the same techniques to study the planet. Therefore, the next step is to apply these same models to Mars. “Mars has satellites measuring all atmospheric levels, but what they need is to connect the dots,” Yiğit said.

By comparing different planets and their atmospheres, which is known as comparative planetary science, scientists can solve significant problems of atmospheric physics or ionospheric physics. “Techniques, methods, and models that have been developed for Earth can be used on Mars by adjusting certain parameters,” he said.

Yiğit believes that this approach will unlock a new wave of exciting scientific discovery for the field of atmosphere-ionosphere science and space weather on Mars. He hopes that this new wave will inspire young scientists to consider studying planets with a broader atmospheric perspective and advance this area of study.