MIAMI: A NASA spacecraft circling Mars has detected a mysterious dust cloud and a vibrant aurora, both unexpected phenomena on Earth’s neighboring planet, researchers said Wednesday.
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) detected the aurora —known on Earth as the Northern lights—in December, so they were nicknamed “Christmas Lights,” according to a statement issued by NASA on the same day as the findings were presented at a Texas astronomy conference.
“For five days just before December 25, MAVEN saw a bright ultraviolet auroral glow spanning Mars’ northern hemisphere,” it said.
Aurora are seen when geomagnetic storms unleashed by eruptions on the Sun cause energetic particles like electrons to crash into the atmosphere, causing the gas to 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 Arnaud Stiepen, Imaging Ultraviolet Spectograph team member at the University of Colorado.
“The electrons producing it must be really energetic.”
Experts believe the source of the energetic particles for the Mars aurora is the Sun, because MAVEN’s Solar Energetic Particle instrument “detected a huge surge in energetic electrons at the onset of the aurora,” NASA said.
Since Mars lost its protective magnetic field billions of years ago, the solar particles can directly strike the atmosphere and penetrate deeply.