Surface-atmosphere interactions are key active processes on rocky planetary bodies, even those with only a transient and/or thin “atmosphere.” These processes commonly involve the exchange of volatiles between atmosphere and surface and the atmospheric transport of sediments (sand and dust) and volatiles. These interactions help shape planetary landscapes, affect the sources/sinks of crucial atmospheric constituents, and influence climatological and meteorological dynamics. All of these connections affect interpretation of observed or modeled geology, geomorphology, climate, and related hazards. Such interpretation influences predictions used in mission design, including entry-descent-landing (EDL), ascent, and surface operations of robotic and human missions, and identification of potentially habitable environments.
Analogous terrestrial processes are often studied intensively via numerical modeling that integrates empirical results from laboratory and/or field studies of process-response interactions between the atmosphere and relevant surface landforms. Incorporation of such in-situ measurements into model development has significantly advanced our understanding of atmosphere-surface interactions and related geomorphic processes on Earth, and is poised to do so on other planets. However, such testing and refinement have not been possible in other planetary environments so far, partially because investigations of this sort require different technologies, mission architectures, and operations designs (e.g., different from large rovers focused on geochemical investigations) to fully address the key gaps in our understanding while keeping cost and risk low.
We will describe critical open science gaps that require in-situ studies of martian surface-atmosphere interactions. We then will describe novel opportunities for high-impact research into environments and geomorphic activity on planetary bodies that could be undertaken in the next decade, based on recent advances in science, engineering, and computing. In particular, we focus on technologies that enable near real-time and detailed collection and analysis of planetary atmosphere-surface interactions. This presentation follows from a community-generated white paper for the ongoing Planetary Science/Astrobiology Decadal Survey, small spacecraft concept development at JPL, and numerous JPL and community discussions.