Faculty: David Catling (Adjunct Assoc. Prof.)
The atmosphere of Mars (top) is being studied using remote sensing data from NASA spacecraft, principally the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. The main components of the climate system of Mars are shown schematically on the bottom.
The behavior of the atmospheres of other planets is of interest in its own right and may provide insights of value in the study of our own atmosphere and climate system. Efforts are focused primarily on Mars. We use computer models and data from recent spacecraft (such as NASA's Mars Global Surveyor) to improve our understanding of the atmospheric dynamics and climate system of Mars. A small effort is also devoted to developing instrumentation for future space missions to measure Martian weather and climate.
The evolution of planetary atmospheres is a further area of research. Here the goal is to understand the nature of past atmospheres from the signatures they have left behind. These signatures can be physical or chemical. For example, on Mars such signatures arise from the effects of wind erosion of the planet's surface, chemical interaction of the atmosphere with the surface, and atmospheric loss to space. The chemical evolution of the Earth's atmosphere is also studied within such a broad, planetary context. The Earth's atmosphere is chemically coupled to the biosphere because all the important atmospheric gases, with the sole exception of argon, are biologically mediated to some extent. Computer models that incorporate climate and biogeochemical feedbacks are being developed to understand the past evolution of Earth's atmosphere. This effort is part of the cross-campus Astrobiology (AB) Program and benefits from the expertise of AB Program faculty, which covers a wide variety of relevant disciplines from astronomy to oceanography to microbiology.