NASA Proposes Artificial Magnet Shield to Restore Atmosphere on Mars

With a little bit of Bradbury imagination and a giant orbital magnet, Mars could be green again.

Just as science fiction author Ray Bradbury envisioned, NASA research strongly suggests the red planet was once green and covered by more oceans than found on Earth. So what happened to turn the fourth planet from the sun into a cold and barren crimson wasteland?

It was the sun that killed Mars. Violent solar winds stripped away the atmosphere over billions of years, leaving Mars naked and exposed to the harshness of space. Now NASA believes they can restore Mars to its former verdant glory — thus enabling the possibility of colonization — with the introduction of an artificial magnetic field. The magnetic field will allow the planet to develop an atmosphere, which in turn could help support life and liquid surface water in the future.

Magnetic fields essentially form a shield around planets, protecting them from charged particles that stream out from the Sun at an average of 400 kilometers (250 miles) per second. Occasionally, a hole in the corona shoots out a gust that moves the particles closer to a blazing 800 kilometers (500 miles) per second. These charged particles, known as solar winds, are normally deflected outward by the magnetic field lines resonating around a planet. While Earth has a strong magnetic field (due to its liquid metal core rotating rapidly every 24 hours), Mars does not.

The Northern Lights are a visible observation of the magnetic field at work, as it protects us from solar winds. The magnetic field sends the highly-charged particles spiraling toward the poles of our planet, and that interaction between the particles and the different gases in our atmosphere creates colorful displays in the sky.

NASA Mars atmosphere magnetic shield
Auroras are triggered in Earth’s atmosphere by the solar wind, a constant stream of charged particles wafting away from the sun. Credit: NASA

A Vision of Solar System Exploration

Last February, NASA’s Planetary Science Division hosted the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop at the NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. for the purpose of developing a long-range vision of what planetary science might look like in the future. Furthermore, they wanted to identify potential science goals and new technologies that would support the next phase of Solar System exploration. At the workshop, Director James Green presented their proposal for how to develop a future inhabitable Mars environment for science and exploration. Green’s accompanying paper describes what led to the red planet’s current condition:

“Today, Mars is an arid and cold world with a very thin atmosphere that has significant frozen and underground water resources. The thin atmosphere both prevents liquid water from residing permanently on its surface and makes it difficult to land missions since it is not thick enough to completely facilitate a soft landing. In its past, under the influence of a significant greenhouse effect, Mars may have had a significant water ocean covering perhaps 30% of the northern hemisphere.

“When Mars lost its protective magnetosphere, three or more billion years ago, the solar wind was allowed to directly ravish its atmosphere. The lack of a magnetic field, its relatively small mass, and its atmospheric photochemistry, all would have contributed to the evaporation and loss of its surface liquid water over time.”

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