Earth has the aurora borealis and aurora australis: nighttime light shows triggered when Earth’s magnetic field funnels electrons and protons from the sun to polar regions, where they excite atmospheric gas molecules and cause them to fluoresce. On Mars, you might call it the aurora universalis. That’s because Mars, lacking an inherent magnetic field, does not channel the sun’s energetic particles to its poles. Scientists using the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft today report evidence for an aurora that instead may occur across the entire nighttime face of the planet (artist’s illustration, above). The MAVEN spacecraft, which began orbiting Mars in 2014 to shed light on how the Red Planet’s atmosphere became so thin, is responsible for findings published today in three other papers. One explains how solar storms erode the planet’s atmosphere; another analyzes interplanetary dust detected at exceptionally high altitudes; and a third details the mixing of atmospheric molecules during one of MAVEN’s dives into the Mars thermosphere and ionosphere.
Mars Express aurora detections
SHINING A LIGHT ON THE AURORA OF MARS
ESA’s Mars Express has shed new light on the Red Planet’s rare ultraviolet aurora by combining for the first time remote observations with in situ measurements of electrons hitting the atmosphere.
On Earth, auroras are often-spectacular light shows at high northern and southern polar latitudes as the solar wind interacts with Earth’s magnetic field.
As charged atomic particles from the Sun are drawn along Earth’s magnetic field, they collide with different molecules and atoms in the atmosphere to create dynamic, colourful curtains and rays in the sky, typically green and red, but sometimes including blues and violets.
These light displays are also found on other planets, including those with powerful magnetic fields such as Jupiter and Saturn. But they can even occur on planets with no magnetic field, such as Venus and Mars.
In the absence of a global magnetic field, solar particles can directly strike the planet’s atmosphere to generate an aurora.
While Mars no longer has a global magnetic field, residual magnetism in the crust is known in the highlands of the southern hemisphere from measurements made by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor.
Even these weak fields can increase the chances of an aurora. Soon after it arrived in 2003, Mars Express became the first satellite to observe ultraviolet light over these regions during local night.
Now armed with 10 years of observations, scientists have detected ultraviolet auroras on many occasions, and have analysed in detail how and where they are produced in the martian atmosphere.
“With 10 years of data, we’ve gone much further than the initial detection, and we now have a better understanding of the characteristics and occurrences of this interesting phenomenon,” says Jean-Claude Gérard of the University of Liège, Belgium, lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.
“The ultraviolet auroras turn out to be very rare and transient: they last only a few seconds. Even though Mars Express has passed over each location many times, detections at a given location do not seem to repeat at later times,” adds Lauriane Soret, also of the University of Liège and lead author of the paper published in Icarus.
From a total of 113 nightside orbits looking straight down on the planet, nine were confirmed to show auroras, with some multiple detections along individual orbits leading to a total of 16 detections.
Looking down, Mars Express can monitor their brightness over time, but observations through the atmosphere at an angle are required to determine the aurora altitudes. Three more auroras were observed in this way, with altitudes determined around an average of 137 km.