Science

Mars Hope Mission in UAE discovers new spotty variety of aurora borealis over the Red Planet

The Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) has detected patchy “proton auroras” over Mars, indicating unexpectedly chaotic conditions in which the solar wind interacts with the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere.

Arriving into orbit around Mars on February 2. On September 9, 2021, the United Arab Emirates’ spacecraft Hope observes the Red Planet using, among other things, its Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer (EMUS) instrument. The mission team hoped to use this instrument to see the variability in the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere, in particular the prevalence of oxygen and carbon monoxide, and to detect hydrogen and oxygen escaping into space as the Red Planet’s water slowly leaks out. away.

To support this work, EMUS is designed to detect ultraviolet radiation from protons (hydrogen nuclei) in the Martian atmosphere that have been energized by the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that constantly streams down from the Sun. To the scientists’ surprise, instead of a uniform glow at these ultraviolet wavelengths, EMUS showed that the emission can often become patchy.

Related: UAE’s Mars Hope Orbiter Spots Elusive Aurora on Red Planet

“What we’re seeing is essentially a map of where the solar wind hits the planet,” Mike Chaffin, member of the Hope team at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of a new paper detailing the results. , says the email.

Mars doesn’t have its own global magnetic field like Earth does to protect it from the solar wind, but its thin atmosphere still acts as a barrier that can deflect the interplanetary magnetic field carried by the solar wind around the planet. This deflection causes the solar wind to slow and build up as it envelopes Mars, creating a concentration of charged particles called plasma that can interact with residual magnetic field lines left in regions of the Martian crust.

Scientists already knew that this plasma environment, and its relationship to magnetic fields emanating from the surface of Mars, could influence how, where, and when hydrogen and oxygen seep into space. It now appears that this may also affect the location and intensity of proton auroras when the magnetic field carried by the solar wind aligns with the magnetic field lines from the Martian surface along which the protons travel.

Diagram showing how proton auroras are formed. Usually, as we see in the upper diagram, the charged particles of the solar wind flow around the Red Planet, and only a few interact with hydrogen atoms in the extended upper atmosphere. When proton auroras become patchy, as we see in the bottom diagram, the solar wind’s magnetic field aligns with the direction of the flow of protons (hydrogen nuclei) in the upper atmosphere, resulting in a choppy plasma ocean filled with turbulent patches. which are reflected in the patchiness of the proton glow. (Image credit: Emirates Mars Mission/UAE Space Agency)

The findings were made jointly with NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission, which is also in orbit around the Red Planet and can observe the state of the plasma in the upper atmosphere. Together, these two missions provided a comprehensive picture of what was going on.

“Access to the MAVEN data was essential in order to place these new observations in a broader context,” Hessa Al Matrushi, Hope’s lead scientist, said in a statement. “Together, we are pushing the boundaries of our existing knowledge not only about Mars, but also about the interaction of the planets with the solar wind.”

Proton auroras on Mars were originally detected by MAVEN in 2018, but the NASA mission only saw them as a uniform glow on the planet’s day side. The high spatial resolution of EMUS made it possible to detect inhomogeneities coinciding with turbulent space weather.

Images from the Nadezhda orbiter’s EMUS instrument showing the aurora on Mars. (Image credit: Emirates Mars Mission/UAE Space Agency)

For example, in observations collected in Aug. On November 11, 2021, “the aurora is so widespread and so disorganized that the plasma environment around Mars must have been really disrupted,” Chaffin said.

The varying extent and location of patchy proton auroras may indicate different conditions in the plasma environment around Mars, resulting from changes in the solar wind and even the Martian season. Although no new results have yet been released, the summer of 2022 coincided with the summer in the southern hemisphere of Mars, and a large number of proton auroras were expected to occur.

“Our discovery of these patchy proton auroras adds a new type of event to the long list of those currently being studied by the EMM and challenges our current understanding of how proton auroras form on the day side of Mars,” Al Matrushi said.

Follow Keith Cooper on Twitter @21stCenturySETI. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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