NASA’s MAVEN observes Martian Light Shows Caused By Major Solar Storm


MAVEN Artist’s Concept Orbiting Mars This illustration shows MAVEN’s spacecraft and the limb on Mars. NASA’s MAVEN mission observed two types of ultraviolet aurorae simultaneously for the first time in eight years of orbiting Mars. This was the result of solar storms, which began on August 27. MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere & Volatile Evolution mission, is the only Mars asset that can simultaneously observe the Sun’s activity as well as the response of the Martian atmosphere. The MAVEN team was able to accurately predict when the coming solar storm would hit the Red Planet by using real-time analysis and simulations from NASA’s Moon To Mars Space Weather Analysis Office. Space weather forecasting is crucial to protect future missions to Mars and human explorers on Mars. Mars has no global magnetic field that can shield it from the harmful radiation caused by solar storms. It all started with the Sun. A series of solar flares were produced by an active region of the Sun on August 27. These are intense bursts of radiation. A coronal mass eruption (CME) was the result of this flaring activity. This is a huge explosion of gas-magnet energy that propagates through space and leaves the Sun. A few days later, the interplanetary CME hit Mars. The CME produced one of the most intense solar energetic particle (SEP) events the MAVEN spacecraft has ever witnessed. MAVEN’s SEP detector observed the SEPs at Mars that had been accelerated ahead by the CME on August 27; Many MAVEN instruments were able to measure the strength of the solar storm, including the Extreme Ultraviolet Monitor and the Magnetometer. “By using space weather models of CME proliferation, we determined when and how the structure would impact Mars,” stated Christina Lee, a space scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is part of the MAVEN mission team. She is also collaborating with the Moon and Mars Space Weather Analysis Office scientists. This allowed the MAVEN team to anticipate some interesting disturbances in Mars’ atmosphere from the impacts of interplanetary CME and associated SEPs. Catching the Martian Light Show The solar storm unleashed particles that bombarded Mars’ atmosphere and caused bright auroras at ultraviolet wavelengths. MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph(IUVS) instrument detected two types of auroras: proton and diffuse. MAVEN Watches Martian Light Show: Data from NASA’s MAVEN orbiter show the effects of an August 30 solar storm on Mars. Below is a diagram of the Sun’s energy on Mars, which drives the proton aurora and the dark solar wind. The timing was a key factor in this amazing duo being observed simultaneously. Mars is near the end of duststorm season, which occurs each year on Mars’ closest approach to the Sun. These dust storms heat the atmosphere enough for water vapor to reach high elevations. Then, it is broken down by the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation and releases hydrogen atoms. The planet’s dayside is lit up by ultraviolet radiation when the extra hydrogen from the Sun’s incoming wind hits it. These “proton auroras” were created by the arrival of more dynamic energic particles that penetrate deeper into the atmosphere. Sumedha Gupta is a postdoctoral researcher at the IUVS team at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado Boulder. She first noticed the coincidence while performing routine checks of incoming data just a few days following the event. She said, “It was amazing to see proton aurora simultaneously with diffuse aurora. It had never happened before.” “They are both growing with solar activity, so let’s hope it continues!” This light show is a sign that there is more to come for Mars and the MAVEN team. As it nears solar maximum in 2024-2025, the Sun becomes more active, with flares and CMEs. The Sun’s 11-year solar cycle’s peak of solar activity is called the solar maximum. This means that CMEs and SEPs will continue to impact Mars’ atmosphere, and frequency will increase. “It’s thrilling to still be observing firsts such as this simultaneous aurora even after all the years. Shannon Curry, the principal investigator for MAVEN, said that there is so much more to be learned about the atmosphere and the effects of solar storms on the Red Planet. “Our team can’t wait to see the MAVEN mission’s most extreme conditions over the next few years.” Relay and science onwards MAVEN was able to return to no science and relay operations Saturday, May 28, 2022, after successfully transferring to all-stellar navigation. MAVEN continues to be a successful spacecraft operating in all-stellar mode. The IMUs are required to be used at certain times of the year. Therefore, the team will continue to find innovative ways to control the spacecraft’s orientation. This will allow MAVEN to continue operating throughout its extended mission life and will allow the orbiter to continue making observations in extreme conditions of the Martian atmosphere. MAVEN’s principal investigator resides at the University of California in Berkeley. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the MAVEN mission. Lockheed Martin Space designed the spacecraft and was responsible for its operation. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena (California), provides Deep Space Network support and navigation. The University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics is responsible for science operations, public outreach, and communication. Willow Reed MAVEN Communications Lead. The University of Colorado Boulder, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

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