NASA's MAVEN Captures a 'Christmas Lights Aurora' on Mars

Wednesday, 18 March 2015 - 4:10PM
Space
Mars
Astronomy
Wednesday, 18 March 2015 - 4:10PM
NASA's MAVEN Captures a 'Christmas Lights Aurora' on Mars
NASA orbiter MAVEN has caught a glimpse of an aurora reminiscent of the Northern Lights on Earth, which the research team has affectionately dubbed the "Christmas Lights Aurora," both because it is distinct from the Northern Lights and because it appeared just before Christmas of last year.

For a five-day period leading up to December 25, 2014, MAVEN received ultraviolet data indicating the presence of an aurora over the northern hemisphere of Mars. Auroras are caused by charged particles, usually electrons and protons, entering the atmosphere from above. This causes the ionization and excitation of other particles in the atmosphere, which in turn causes the emission of colored light. On Earth, they most commonly appear green or blue, but the above artist's depiction of the Martian Aurora portrays it as a purple ultraviolet glow.

"What's especially surprising about the aurora we saw is how deep in the atmosphere it occurs - much deeper than at Earth or elsewhere on Mars," said team member Arnaud Stiepen. "The electrons producing it must be really energetic."

The source of those electrons seems to be the Sun, as MAVEN's Solar Energetic Particle instrument, which detects energetic electrons from the Sun, experienced a surge in activity just before the appearance of the aurora.


Mars Aurora
'A map of IUVS's auroral detections in December 2014 overlaid on Mars' surface. The map shows that the aurora was widespread in the northern hemisphere, not tied to any geographic location. The aurora was detected in all observations during a 5-day period.'
[Credit: University of Colorado]

According to NASA, the electrons were able to directly strike the Martian atmosphere as a result of the planet losing its global protective magnetic field, similar to Earth's, billions of years ago.

"The electrons producing the aurora have about 100 times more energy than you get from a spark of house current, so they can penetrate deeply in the atmosphere," NASA said in a statement.
Science
NASA
Space
Mars
Astronomy

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