# How do we know what the atmospheric pressure on Mars is?

The martian atmosphere is 6 mbar. How do we know this? Which probe(s) had a barometer on board to measure this?

• Do we need measurements for this at all? I would've thought the pressure should be fairly predictable from the composition and the depth (and gravity). Apr 23, 2021 at 0:32
• @user541686 How would you know the composition and depth without measurements? Of course we need measurements. We can use measurements to predict other quantities using models, but those models need input from measurements, or their output isn't very useful. Apr 23, 2021 at 14:39
• @gerrit: Pretty certain the comment ("measurements for this") was talking about pressure measurements being unnecessary. Not measurements in general. The question seems to imply a barometer is necessary (by asking which probe had one, a loaded question, rather than asking if any did), and the comment above seems to be rejecting that premise. Apr 23, 2021 at 17:07
• @gerrit: Indeed this^ is what I meant. That said, wouldn't it also be possible to figure out the composition from the spectrum? i.e. without having a probe there... Apr 23, 2021 at 21:09
• im pretty sure you don't need any measurements at all, the composition of the athmosphere can be deduced from images, we can even calculate how much C02 is around other planets without ever going there, and the rest is just a question of gravity Apr 24, 2021 at 20:45

TFB's answer is correct that both Vikings made barometric measurements (and it is what the question asked for!), but it's worth noting that the atmosphere had been measured before surface instruments were available, and seems to have got pretty close to the current value.

In 1965, Mariner 4 carried out radio-occultation experiments, where the probe's signal was measured as it passed through the atmosphere before being eclipsed by Mars. These were used to calculate an estimated surface pressure of 4.1 to 7.0 mbar, depending on the model used for the composition of the atmosphere. Model II was for 80-100% CO2 with the balance N2/Ar (we now know it to be ~95% CO2), and gave a surface pressure of 4.1-6.2 mbar. There was a caveat to these measurements in that they suspected the signal had been eclipsed by a surface feature (eg a mountain) and so may have given a slightly low result - they were calculating the surface pressure at the altitude of this object, not necessarily at "ground level". (Kliore et al (1965). "Occultation Experiment: Results of the First Direct Measurement of Mars's Atmosphere and Ionosphere". Science, 149.)

Prior to this, the consensus in the 1950s had been about 85 mbar, based on optical measurements of the atmosphere; a more detailed study in 1964 drawing on Earth-based spectroscopic measurements had reduced this to around 25±15 mbar. (Kaplan et al (1964). "An Analysis of the Spectrum of Mars". Astrophysical Journal, 139.)

In 1969, Mariner 6 and 7 took four distinct occultation measurements at different points, with three of them agreeing on 6-7 mbar. The fourth gave 3.8 mbar, which was suggested might be due to it being measured over a large plateau. (Mariner-Mars 1969 preliminary report, p 8) By the time of Mariner 9, which took extensive orbital measurements, the data seemed to have converged on a "surface" value of 6.1 mbar, with substantial variations from 1.5-8 mbar depending on location. (Mariner-Mars 1971 scientific report, vol 4, ch 20; Hanel et al (1973). "Investigation of the Martian Environment by Infrared Spectroscopy on Mariner 9".)

So even before Viking, it seems that the current value of 6.1 mbar had been generally agreed on and is consistent with what we know today. It is significantly lower than had been estimated before the first probes arrived - but not particularly far from the very first flyby measurements.

– uhoh
Apr 22, 2021 at 18:24
• @gerrit: Obsolete to whom? I assure you that the bar, or millibar, is not obsolete in a number of fields, such as aviation, where it is more important to know the deviation from standard atmospheric pressure, than the absolute value. (And what the heck is an hPa?) Apr 23, 2021 at 15:41
• @jamesqf It's obsolete in science and engineering, because it's not part of the SI. Aviation does its own thing ignoring the SI altogether, but this is not an aviation site. The standard Earth atmospheric pressure is not relevant on Mars. A hPa is a hectopascal (100 Pa), the most common unit to measure atmospheric pressure (for historical reasons, being identical to the obsolete mbar). I believe the US NWS still uses mbar, but NASA uses Pascal. Apr 23, 2021 at 16:41
• @gerrit: So widely used == obsolete? Okay :-) Apr 24, 2021 at 2:58

Viking 1 did, Viking 2 also did. I believe a lot of the atmospheric data about Mars comes from these two.

Phoenix also did: I presume all other landers have had: I've not been able to find confirmation that Spirit and Opportunity did.

Of current missions on the surface, I can't find confirmation that Insight does, but Curiosity and Perseverance both do.

I haven't checked others not mentioned here.

• Modern, simple barometers have very little requirements in terms of cost, size, weight, power, and complexity. It wouldn't surprise me if every lander/rover designed for mars has at least a simple barometer, even if it isn't of the quality that most scientists would like. Apr 23, 2021 at 0:37
• @BillThePlatypus: These days an accurate pressure sensor can be a single little chip, weighing a fraction of a gram, and using a fraction of a microamp. It would be surprising if the landers didn't have them. Apr 23, 2021 at 2:36