An analysis of data returned by the Curiosity rover, which landed on the planet a year ago, suggests there was a major upheaval which could have been caused by volcanic eruptions or a massive collision which stripped away the atmosphere.
The rover has returned its first measurements of the makeup of gases, including argon, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, in the Martian atmosphere.
The results, published in two parallel studies in the journal Science, allow scientists to better understand how the Martian climate changed, and understand whether it ever had the right conditions for life.
“As Mars became a planet and its magma solidified, catastrophic outgassing occurred while volatiles were delivered by impact of comets and other small bodies”, Dr Webster said.
“Our Curiosity measurements are – for the first time – accurate enough to make direct comparisons with measurements done on Earth on meteorites using sophisticated large instrumentation that gives high accuracy results.”
The team believe a major event destroying the atmosphere must have happened around four billion years ago.
The different ratio of two forms of the gas argon on Mars and Earth suggests some huge event changed their relative amounts, the scientists said.
Monica Grady, professor of planetary sciences at The Open University, who did not write the studies, told The Guardian: “It’s really great that two separate studies using different instruments and techniques have given the same composition.
“These findings reverse the results from the Phoenix mission and clear up some confusion over the composition of the Martian atmosphere.”
According to a study of rock samples published last month, Mars had an oxygen-rich atmosphere more than a billion years before Earth.