Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft finds that 'stolen' electrons enable unusual aurora on Mars

24.07.2018

Auroras appear on Earth as ghostly displays of colorful light in the night sky, usually near the poles. Our rocky neighbor Mars has auroras too, and NASA's MAVEN spacecraft just found a new type of Martian aurora that occurs over much of the day side of the Red Planet, where auroras are very hard to see.

Auroras flare up when energetic particles plunge into a planet's atmosphere, bombarding gases and making them glow. While electrons generally cause this natural phenomenon, sometime protons can elicit the same response, although it's more rare.


This animation shows a proton aurora at Mars. First, a solar wind proton approaches Mars at high speed and encounters a cloud of hydrogen surrounding the planet. The proton steals an electron from a Martian hydrogen atom, thereby becoming a neutral atom. The atom passes through the bowshock, a magnetic obstacle surrounding Mars, because neutral particles are not affected by magnetic fields. Finally, the hydrogen atom enters Mars' atmosphere and collides with gas molecules, causing the atom to emit ultraviolet light. Download animation: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/12986

Credit: NASA/MAVEN/Goddard Space Flight Center/Dan Gallagher


MAVEN observations of a proton aurora. In the top panel, natural variability of the solar wind results in occasional dense flows of solar wind protons bombarding Mars. At bottom, observations by MAVEN's Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph show increased ultraviolet emission from the atmosphere when the solar wind is enhanced. Download animation: https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/12986

Credit: NASA/MAVEN/University of Colorado/LASP/Anil Rao

Now, the MAVEN team has learned that protons were doing at Mars the same thing as electrons usually do at Earth--create aurora. This is especially true when the Sun ejects a particularly strong pulse of protons, which are hydrogen atoms stripped of their lone electrons by intense heat. The Sun ejects protons at speeds up to two million miles per hour (more than 3 million kilometers per hour) in an erratic flow called the solar wind.

The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission) team was studying Mars' atmosphere with the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS), and observed that on occasion, the ultraviolet light coming from hydrogen gas in Mars' upper atmosphere would mysteriously brighten for a few hours. They then noticed that the brightening events occurred when another MAVEN instrument, the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA), measured enhanced solar wind protons.

But two puzzles make this type of aurora seem impossible at first glance: how did these protons get past the planet's "bow shock," a magnetic obstacle which normally diverts the solar wind's charged particles around the planet? And how could the protons give off light, since atoms need electrons to do so?

"The answer was thievery," said Justin Deighan, of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, lead author of a paper on this research appearing July 23 in Nature Astronomy.

"As they approach Mars, the protons coming in with the solar wind transform into neutral atoms by stealing electrons from the outer edge of the huge cloud of hydrogen surrounding the planet. The bow shock can only divert charged particles, so these neutral atoms continue right on through."

When those high-speed incoming atoms hit the atmosphere, some of their energy was emitted as ultraviolet light, which is invisible to the human eye but detectable to instruments like the IUVS on MAVEN. In fact, one incoming atom can collide with molecules in the atmosphere hundreds of times before it slows down, giving off a slew of ultraviolet photons.

"The Martian proton auroras are more than a light show," said Jasper Halekas of the University of Iowa, responsible for the SWIA instrument. "They reveal that the solar wind is not completely diverted around Mars, by showing how solar wind protons can sneak past the bow shock and impact the atmosphere, depositing energy and even enhancing the hydrogen content there."

Proton auroras do occur at Earth, but not as often as at Mars. One key difference is Earth's strong magnetic field, which diverts the solar wind away from Earth to a much greater degree than at Mars. On Earth, proton auroras only occur in very small regions near the poles, whereas at Mars they can happen everywhere.

However, proton auroras could be common on Venus and on Saturn's moon Titan. Like Mars, these two worlds lack their own magnetic fields, and have lots of hydrogen in their upper atmospheres--with plenty of electrons to share. Looking further, it's likely that many planets orbiting other stars have the same favorable conditions, and would be likely to have proton auroras too.

###

This research was funded by the MAVEN mission. MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder, and NASA Goddard manages the MAVEN project.

Bill Steigerwald | EurekAlert!
Further information:
https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/goddard/2018/mars-proton-aurora
http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41550-018-0538-5

Further reports about: Goddard Space Flight Center MAVEN Mars NASA protons solar wind spacecraft

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Unraveling the nature of 'whistlers' from space in the lab
15.08.2018 | American Institute of Physics

nachricht Early opaque universe linked to galaxy scarcity
15.08.2018 | University of California - Riverside

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Unraveling the nature of 'whistlers' from space in the lab

A new study sheds light on how ultralow frequency radio waves and plasmas interact

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles present new research on a curious cosmic phenomenon known as "whistlers" -- very low frequency packets...

Im Focus: New interactive machine learning tool makes car designs more aerodynamic

Scientists develop first tool to use machine learning methods to compute flow around interactively designable 3D objects. Tool will be presented at this year’s prestigious SIGGRAPH conference.

When engineers or designers want to test the aerodynamic properties of the newly designed shape of a car, airplane, or other object, they would normally model...

Im Focus: Robots as 'pump attendants': TU Graz develops robot-controlled rapid charging system for e-vehicles

Researchers from TU Graz and their industry partners have unveiled a world first: the prototype of a robot-controlled, high-speed combined charging system (CCS) for electric vehicles that enables series charging of cars in various parking positions.

Global demand for electric vehicles is forecast to rise sharply: by 2025, the number of new vehicle registrations is expected to reach 25 million per year....

Im Focus: The “TRiC” to folding actin

Proteins must be folded correctly to fulfill their molecular functions in cells. Molecular assistants called chaperones help proteins exploit their inbuilt folding potential and reach the correct three-dimensional structure. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (MPIB) have demonstrated that actin, the most abundant protein in higher developed cells, does not have the inbuilt potential to fold and instead requires special assistance to fold into its active state. The chaperone TRiC uses a previously undescribed mechanism to perform actin folding. The study was recently published in the journal Cell.

Actin is the most abundant protein in highly developed cells and has diverse functions in processes like cell stabilization, cell division and muscle...

Im Focus: Lining up surprising behaviors of superconductor with one of the world's strongest magnets

Scientists have discovered that the electrical resistance of a copper-oxide compound depends on the magnetic field in a very unusual way -- a finding that could help direct the search for materials that can perfectly conduct electricity at room temperatur

What happens when really powerful magnets--capable of producing magnetic fields nearly two million times stronger than Earth's--are applied to materials that...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Within reach of the Universe

08.08.2018 | Event News

A journey through the history of microscopy – new exhibition opens at the MDC

27.07.2018 | Event News

2018 Work Research Conference

25.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Unraveling the nature of 'whistlers' from space in the lab

15.08.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Diving robots find Antarctic winter seas exhale surprising amounts of carbon dioxide

15.08.2018 | Earth Sciences

Early opaque universe linked to galaxy scarcity

15.08.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>