Mars Satellite Makes Unexpected Discoveries: Pretty Lights and Dust

A trip to Mars already is yielding surprises for NASA—no, not Martians, but two unexpected atmospheric phenomena that have been detected for the first time.

The scientists running NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, spacecraft announced Wednesday they’ve spotted an aurora like Earth’s Northern Lights and a high-altitude dust cloud that reaches deep into Mars’ atmosphere. The program’s principal scientific investigators are University of Colorado-Boulder professors and part of the school’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

MAVEN arrived at Mars on Sept. 21, and it is four months into its one-Earth-year primary mission. The investigators discovered what they call “a bright ultraviolet auroral glow” that spanned Mars’ northern hemisphere on Dec. 20, leading them to name it the Christmas Lights.

“We weren’t expecting any aurora in the region we were observing, so it was a great present for us,” said Nick Schneider, a CU-Boulder professor and LASP researcher. “It was probably too faint for the rovers to see, but future astronauts might enjoy such a spectacle.”

The scientists believe the aurora was caused by the Sun, most likely because of a surge of electrons that was sent toward Mars just before the aurora formed. An instrument on MAVEN detected the surge.

While auroras are familiar on Earth, the big difference with the one on Mars is how “deep” it is in the planet’s atmosphere, researchers said in a news release. One factor might be that unlike Earth, Mars lacks a magnetic field that surrounds and protects the atmosphere.

While the aurora might look cooler, the most interesting scientific discovery may be the dust cloud that is orbiting between 93 and 190 miles above the surface of Mars. MAVEN was launched to learn more about what happened to Mars’ atmosphere and water, but the new find is an added mystery.

Researchers are having a bit more trouble explaining the dust cloud, and they said in the release they do not know the source or composition of the dust or whether it’s temporary or permanent. If they get to the bottom of it, they could have to rethink their assumptions about Mars’ atmosphere.

The researchers have a few conjectures about how the cloud was formed, thinking it could have wafted up from the atmosphere or come from one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Or it might have blown in on solar wind or sloughed off of a comet. Yet they don’t know how the dust would have ended up in orbit.

“No known process on Mars can explain the appearance of dust in the observed locations from any of these sources,” the release said.

The $671 million mission was launched in November 2013, and it has many ties to the Colorado aerospace industry and planetary scientists. Researchers from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics are the mission’s principal investigators in charge of the research component of the mission, and CU teams designed major scientific instruments for the satellite.

Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) built the satellite at its facility in Littleton, CO, and manages mission operations. The United Launch Alliance, which is based in Centennial, CO, built the rocket that launched the spacecraft.

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