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A New Clue About Past Life on Mars

NASA’s observation of atomic oxygen on Mars’s provides a window into its atmosphere and how life on Mars might get its energy.

[DIGEST: NASA, Space.com]

Mars’s atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide; however, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has now detected atomic oxygen in Mars’s atmosphere, providing a clue to Mars’s energy cycle and its potential for life. Atomic oxygen is a single oxygen atom, unlike the oxygen (O2) breathed by humans, which contains two. Atomic oxygen reacts and bonds with other elements more easily than O2, so it is extremely difficult to detect. NASA’s Mariner and Viking missions measured atomic oxygen on Mars in the 1970s, but it has not been studied since; this marks the first time that scientists have been able to observe atomic oxygen from afar. 

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