Photo: Mars aurora captured by the UAE and NASA shows the beauty of the red planet

An extraordinary phenomenon taking over the Red Planet.
Deniz Yildiran
The 'Patchy' proton aurora discovered on Mars
The 'Patchy' proton aurora discovered on Mars


NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission and the United Arab Emirates’ Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) revealed combined observations of proton aurora at Mars. It turns out that aurora can actually get patchy over the Martian atmosphere.

The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The United Arab Emirates’ EMM found that fine-scale structures covered the proton aurora during the entire day side of Mars.

MAVEN discovered proton aurora in 2018. They form when the solar wind interacts with the upper atmosphere of Mars. Previously, MAVEN and ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Mars Express mission revealed through regular observations that this type of aurora was evenly distributed across the Martian hemisphere.

However, EMM's observations were quite different- this time, proton aurora seemed dynamic and variable. The researcher's called this "patchy proton aurora", which forms when charged particles flow directly into the atmosphere during turbulent conditions and glow as they slow down.

Photo: Mars aurora captured by the UAE and NASA shows the beauty of the red planet
Comparison of normal and patchy proton aurora formation mechanisms at Mars.

It seems that the UAE's Hope probe was quick to discover what hasn't been seen before on Mars two years after its launch.

From solar wind to patchy aurora

“EMM’s observations suggested that the aurora was so widespread and disorganized that the plasma environment around Mars must have been truly disturbed, to the point that the solar wind was directly impacting the upper atmosphere wherever we observed auroral emission,” said Mike Chaffin, a MAVEN and EMM scientist based at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of the study. “By combining EMM auroral observations with MAVEN measurements of the auroral plasma environment, we can confirm this hypothesis and determine that what we were seeing was essentially a map of where the solar wind was raining down onto the planet.”

The newly unearthed patchy proton aurora is considered an extraordinary phenomenon. Solar wind doesn't usually reach Mars’ upper atmosphere as it is diverted by the Red Planet's bow shock and magnetic fields.

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“The full impact of these conditions on the Martian atmosphere is unknown, but EMM and MAVEN observations will play a key role in understanding these enigmatic events,” Chaffin added.

Thanks to the collaboration of MAVEN's full suite of plasma instruments, scientists have been able to observe the Red Planet's upper atmosphere and exosphere like never before. Such advances have paved the way to discovering what's behind the new aurora.

The plasma instruments include; Magnetometer (MAG), the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA), and the SupraThermal And Thermal Ion Composition (STATIC) instrument, and EMM's Emirates Mars Ultraviolet Spectrograph (EMUS).

“EMM’s global observations of the upper atmosphere provide a unique perspective on a region critical to MAVEN science," said MAVEN Principal Investigator Shannon Curry, of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. “These types of simultaneous observations probe the fundamental physics of atmospheric dynamics and evolution and highlight the benefits of international scientific collaboration."

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