Science

Observing A Martian Light Show

The Northern Lights (aurora borealis) are natural disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by the solar wind. If you have ever seen them you cannot but wonder at the dancing display that you observe.

NASA’s MAVEN mission orbiting Mars has recently witnessed two different types of ultraviolet aurorae simultaneously, the result of solar storms that began on Aug. 27.

On Aug. 27, an active region on the Sun produced a series of solar flares, which are intense bursts of radiation. The strength of the ensuing solar storm was recorded by many of the instruments on MAVEN.

Particles unleashed by the solar storm bombarded Mars’ atmosphere, causing bright auroras at ultraviolet wavelengths. MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument observed two types: diffuse aurora and proton aurora.

Left column: From top to bottom, MAVEN data showing solar wind, solar energetic particles, proton aurora strength, diffuse aurora strength. On August 30th, a solar storm (a coronal mass ejection) impacted Mars and an increase in the solar inputs as well as the resulting two types of aurora can be clearly seen. Right column: a schematic of the solar wind on the dayside of Mars driving the proton aurora and the solar energetic particles on the nightside of Mars driving the diffuse aurora. Image credit: LASP/CU Boulder, UC Berkeley

The Sun is growing more and more active with events, such as flares and CMEs (coronal mass ejection), as it approaches solar maximum in 2024-2025. Solar maximum is when the height of solar activity peaks in the Sun’s 11-year solar cycle, meaning CMEs and SEPs are expected to increase in frequency and continue to impact Mars’ atmosphere.

Click on this link to find out more about NASA’s MAVEN Mission

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