By: April Carson
Auroras on Earth are a magnificent sight, but our planet isn't the only one in the Solar System where they may be seen. In fact, Mars has its own auroras, although they look very different to the ones we're used to seeing.
Even some of Jupiter's moons, as well as a comet, have been observed to exhibit an atmospheric glow. But it is on Mars that the story gets interesting. The red planet is recognized for having lost its global magnetic field, which was once thought to be an essential component in the formation of aurora elsewhere in space.
However, Mars is not magnetism-free. Certain areas of the crust, particularly in the southern hemisphere, develop localized magnetic fields. These tiny, local magnetic fields interact with the solar wind in unique ways to generate Mars's discrete (or organized) ultraviolet auroras, according to new research.
The researchers used data from NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft to understand how the interactions work. MAVEN has been orbiting Mars since 2014, studying the planet's upper atmosphere.
"We've done the first comprehensive research on how Martian solar wind conditions influence auroras," said Zachary Girazian, a physicist and astronomer at the University of Iowa.
"Our main conclusion is that the aurora occurrence rate varies significantly depending on the orientation of the solar wind magnetic field within the strong crustal field region, whereas it varies only modestly depending on the solar wind dynamic pressure outside of this area."
We know how auroras occur on Earth, which is why we can forecast them. They appear when particles from the solar wind impact the planet's magnetosphere, and they are then accelerated along the magnetic field lines to higher latitudes, where they rain down into the upper atmosphere. The particles collide with atoms and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen, and these collisions cause the atoms and molecules to emit light.
They do this by gathering moisture from the air, which they then use to make the sparkling lights that dance in the sky.
Theories as to how the strange light appears in similar ways on other bodies abound. For instance, Jupiter's powerful, continuous auroras are aided by the complicated magnetic field of a large planet.
Mars' global magnetic field faded rather abruptly early in the planet's history, leaving only patches of magnetism preserved in magnetized minerals in the crust. Ultraviolet views of Mars at night have revealed that auroras are most likely to occur near these crustal magnetic fields, which makes sense if particle acceleration requires magnetic field lines.
The solar wind's fluctuations, as well as known planetary magnetic fields and the sunspot cycles, are all factors that need to be considered by Girazian and his crew. They looked at data from Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which has been photographing the red planet's ultraviolet spectrum since 2014. It also features a device called the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer, which is used to analyze the solar wind.
They compared data on the solar wind's dynamic pressure and the interplanetary magnetic field's strength and angle with ultraviolet auroras data. Outside of crustal magnetic field regions, they discovered that the dynamic pressure of the solar wind has a significant impact in determining aurora occurrence rates.
The brightness of said auroras, on the other hand, appears to be unaffected by solar wind pressure. This implies that space weather phenomena such as coronal mass ejections, which occur when masses of charged particles are blasted from the Sun and are accompanied with a greater solar wind pressure, may trigger Martian auroras.
This new understanding of Martian auroras could have important implications for future exploration of the Red Planet. As Mars doesn't have a global magnetic field like Earth does, its atmosphere is constantly being bombarded by high-energy particles from the Sun.
The orientation of the magnetic field and solar wind inside the crustal magnetic field regions appear to be critical in producing auroras on Mars. The solar wind is conducive to magnetic reconnection events or particle acceleration at particular orientations, which are essential for generating ultraviolet light.
The researchers said that when a planet without a global magnetic field is bombarded with solar wind, new findings emerge on how such interactions can produce auroras. This data may be useful in determining the formation of unique auroras on planets with very different geologies.
"That was one of the great advancements," Girazian added, "and it's been a very exciting and exciting moment for researching aurora on Mars."
"MAVEN's database of discrete aurora observations is the first of its kind, allowing us to grasp fundamental aspects of the aurora for the first time. No other aurora has been so frequently and comprehensively observed," said Nick Schneider, a co-investigator of the study from the University of Colorado Boulder.
"We've only scratched the surface of what MAVEN can do for our understanding of Mars," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN's principal investigator at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The research was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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