Large Solar Storm Sparks Global Aurora and Doubles Radiation Levels on the Martian Surface
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
September 29, 2017
An unexpectedly strong blast from the Sun hit Mars this month, observed
by NASA missions in orbit and on the surface.
"NASA's distributed set of science missions is in the right place to detect
activity on the Sun and examine the effects of such solar events at Mars
as never possible before," said MAVEN Program Scientist Elsayed Talaat,
program scientist at NASA Headquarters, Washington, for NASA's Mars Atmosphere
and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission.
The solar event on Sept. 11, 2017 sparked a global aurora at Mars more
than 25 times brighter than any previously seen by the MAVEN orbiter,
which has been studying the Martian atmosphere's interaction with the
solar wind since 2014.
It produced radiation levels on the surface more than double any previously
measured by the Curiosity rover's Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD,
since that mission's landing in 2012. The high readings lasted more than
Strangely, it occurred in conjunction with a spate of solar activity during
what is usually a quiet period in the Sun's 11-year sunspot and storm-activity
cycle. This event was big enough to be detected at Earth too, even though
Earth was on the opposite side of the Sun from Mars.
"The current solar cycle has been an odd one, with less activity than
usual during the peak, and now we have this large event as we're approaching
solar minimum," said Sonal Jain of the University of Colorado Boulder's
Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, who is a member of MAVEN's
Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph instrument team.
"This is exactly the type of event both missions were designed to study,
and it's the biggest we've seen on the surface so far," said RAD Principal
Investigator Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute's Boulder,
Colorado, office. "It will improve our understanding of how such solar
events affect the Martian environment, from the top of the atmosphere
all the way down to the surface."
RAD monitored radiation levels inside the encapsulated spacecraft that
carried Curiosity from Earth to Mars in 2011 and 2012 and has been steadily
monitoring the radiation environment at Mars' surface for more than five
RAD findings strengthen understanding of radiation's impact on Mars habitability,
a key objective of the Curiosity mission. NASA is also using RAD findings
for planning the safety of human-crew missions to Mars. Highly energetic
solar events can significantly increase the radiation that penetrates
through the atmosphere to the Mars surface. The increased radiation also
interacts with the atmosphere to produce additional, secondary particles,
which need to be understood and shielded against to ensure the safety
of future human explorers.
"If you were outdoors on a Mars walk and learned that an event like this
was imminent, you would definitely want to take shelter, just as you would
if you were on a space walk outside the International Space Station,"
Hassler said. "To protect our astronauts on Mars in the future, we need
to continue to provide this type of space weather monitoring there."
The Sun is always emitting a continuous stream of charged particles, mainly
electrons and protons. Occasionally, eruptions called coronal mass ejections
occur, with higher density, energy and speed of the ejected particles.
These events vary in strength. Strong ones cause dramatic aurora displays
on Earth, and very strong ones can disrupt communications. Some coronal
mass ejections, such as this month's event, are broad enough in extent
to affect planets in quite different directions from the Sun.
Jain said, "When a solar storm hits the Martian atmosphere, it can trigger
auroras that light up the whole planet in ultraviolet light. The recent
one lit up Mars like a light bulb. An aurora on Mars can envelope the
entire planet because Mars has no strong magnetic field like Earth's to
concentrate the aurora near polar regions. The energetic particles from
the Sun also can be absorbed by the upper atmosphere, increasing its temperature
and causing it to swell up."
Analysis of the data is just beginning. "We expect to get a better understanding
of how the process operates in the upper atmosphere of Mars today, and
a better understanding of how storms like this may have stripped away
much of the Martian atmosphere in the past," said MAVEN Principal Investigator
Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado Boulder. The loss of most
of Mars' original atmosphere to space is linked to the planet's change
from wet to dry, long ago.
Besides the observations by instruments on MAVEN and Curiosity, effects
of the Sept. 11, 2017 event were also detected by instruments on NASA's
Mars Odyssey orbiter and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and by the European
Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the MAVEN
mission for the principal investigator at the University of Colorado.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Curiosity
mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. RAD is supported
by NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Washington,
under JPL subcontract to Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, and
by Germany's national space agency (DLR) under contract with Christian-Albrechts-Universitat,
News Media Contact
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Nancy Neal Jones
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
University of Colorado Boulder
Southwest Reseach Institute, San Antonio
Laurie Cantillo / Dwayne Brown
NASA Headquarters, Washington