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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Solar flares trigger spectacular light show on Mars

Recent CMEs and solar flares have not only dazzled Earth's skies with northern lights but also created stunning auroras on Mars.

Recent coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares have not only dazzled Earth’s skies with northern lights but also created stunning auroras on Mars. NASA announced that these solar events, reaching their peak activity this year as part of the Sun’s 11-year cycle, have produced remarkable atmospheric phenomena on the Red Planet.

Solar Maximum and Mars

As the Sun hits its solar maximum, the frequency and intensity of solar flares and CMEs have increased. These eruptions interact with planetary atmospheres, causing vivid auroras. While Earth’s magnetic field limits these light shows to the polar regions, Mars, lacking a global magnetic field, experiences auroras that envelop the entire planet.

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On May 20, a significant solar flare, classified as X12, was detected by the Solar Orbiter spacecraft. This flare, one of the strongest types, sent X-rays and gamma rays hurtling toward Mars. Shortly after, a coronal mass ejection launched charged particles that reached the planet in mere minutes.

Record-Breaking Radiation

NASA’s Curiosity rover, equipped with the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), measured an unprecedented surge in radiation during this solar event. Astronauts on Mars would have received a dose of 8,100 micrograys, equivalent to 30 chest X-rays, if they had been present. This event marked the highest radiation surge Curiosity has recorded in its 12-year mission.

Don Hassler, RAD’s principal investigator, emphasized the significance of this data for future Mars missions. “Cliffsides or lava tubes could provide additional shielding for astronauts from such events,” Hassler noted, highlighting the need for effective radiation protection strategies for human explorers on Mars.

MAVEN’s Auroral Discovery

High above Mars, NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiter captured images of glowing auroras. Unlike Earth, where auroras are confined to the poles, Mars’s lack of a global magnetic field allows these displays to blanket the entire planet. MAVEN’s instruments recorded the largest solar energetic particle event ever observed by the mission.

Christina Lee, MAVEN Space Weather Lead, detailed how these particles impact Mars’s atmosphere. “During solar events, the Sun releases a wide range of energetic particles. Only the most energetic can reach the surface to be measured by RAD, while less energetic particles cause auroras,” she explained.

Read More: NASA prepares for solar maximum impact on Mars

The data collected by Curiosity, MAVEN, and other spacecraft will be invaluable for planning future manned missions to Mars. Understanding the radiation levels and their effects will help ensure the safety of astronauts. Upcoming missions like ESCAPADE (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers) will further enhance our understanding by providing more detailed observations of space weather around Mars.