Auroras appear on Earth as ghostly displays of colorful light in the night sky, usually near the poles. Our rocky neighbor Mars has auroras too, and NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft just found a new type of Martian aurora, according to a study led by LASP scientists. This phenomenon occurs over much of the day side of the Red Planet, where auroras are very hard to see.
Auroras flare up when energetic particles plunge into a planet’s atmosphere, bombarding gases and making them glow. While electrons generally cause this natural phenomenon, sometime protons can elicit the same response, although it’s more rare. Now, the MAVEN team has learned that protons were doing at Mars the same thing as electrons usually do at Earth—create aurora.
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has observed two unexpected phenomena in the Martian atmosphere: an unexplained high-altitude dust cloud and aurora that reaches deep into the Martian atmosphere.
The presence of dust at orbital altitudes from about 93 miles (150 kilometers) to 190 miles (300 kilometers) above the surface was not predicted. Although the source and composition of the dust are unknown, there is no hazard to MAVEN and other spacecraft orbiting Mars.
NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has provided scientists their first look at a storm of energetic solar particles at Mars and produced unprecedented ultraviolet images of the tenuous oxygen, hydrogen and carbon coronas surrounding the Red Planet, said LASP Associate Director for Science and University of Colorado Boulder Professor Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principal investigator.
In addition, the new observations allowed scientists to make a comprehensive map of highly variable ozone in the Martian atmosphere underlying the coronas, he said. The spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit Sept. 21 and is in the process of lowering its orbit and testing its instruments. The $671 million Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, or MAVEN, was launched toward Mars on Nov. 18, 2013, to help solve the mystery of how the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere.
The LASP-led Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has obtained its first observations of the extended upper atmosphere surrounding Mars.
The Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument obtained these false-color images eight hours after the successful completion of Mars orbit insertion by the spacecraft at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21 after a 10-month journey.