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An intense solar storm lights up Mars – a shower of rays and particles creates a planet-wide ultraviolet aurora

An intense solar storm lights up Mars – a shower of rays and particles creates a planet-wide ultraviolet aurora

Martian radiation shower: Mars was also subjected to a powerful solar storm. This created a bright proton aurora across the entire planet and covered the surface of Mars in powerful radiation. NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recorded its highest radiation exposure since landing, with astronauts receiving as much radiation as 30 chest X-rays. According to NASA, protection options for future Mars astronauts are equally important.

Our Sun is currently more active than it has been for a long time. As it is approaching the maximum of its eleven-year activity cycle, it is exposed to particularly strong radiation fluxes and plasma explosions. One of these solar storms hit Earth with full force on May 11, 2024 and caused aurora borealis even in southern climates. The influx of high-energy particles disrupted Earth's magnetic field so severely that even deep-sea compasses malfunctioned.

But Earth is not the only planet that feels the active sun. On May 20, 2024, our neighboring planet Mars was also subjected to a violent blast of radiation. The X12 flare blanketed the Red Planet in a shower of high-energy X-rays and gamma rays, followed shortly thereafter by fast streams of charged particles. The solar storm also struck space probes in Mars orbit and rovers on the planet's surface.

Proton aurora over the entire planet

This had consequences: The Mars Odyssey orbiter was bathed in so much solid radiation and high-energy particles that the stellar camera, which was used for guidance, temporarily malfunctioned, NASA reports. On the other hand, the MAVEN probe was able to follow one of the effects at close range during the solar storm: a powerful proton aurora that formed around all of Mars and made the planet shine brightly in the ultraviolet range.

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“This was the most powerful flux of energetic particles from the Sun that MAVEN has ever measured,” says MAVEN team member Christina Lee of the University of California, Berkeley. “In the past few weeks, there have been several solar flares, so Mars has been exposed to wave after wave of fast particles.”

The bright dots and lines in these images from Curiosity's navigation camera were created by energetic particles from the solar storm. (animation on click) © NASA/JPL, Caltech

High radiation dose on the surface of Mars

Because Mars – unlike Earth – does not have a protective global magnetic field, the solar storm battered the Martian surface almost relentlessly. The radiometer on NASA's Curiosity Martian rover set a new record, marking the highest radiation dose ever since it landed on Mars about a dozen years ago, according to NASA. If the astronauts had stood next to the spacecraft, they would have received a dose of about 8,100 microgray, the same amount they received after 30 chest X-rays.

This is important information for future Mars missions, explains Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. This shows that it is important to provide protection options for astronauts. “Steep slopes or lava caves could provide astronauts with additional protection in such an event,” Hassler explains. “But in Mars orbit or open space, the dose rate would be much higher.”

The radiation shower even became visible: in the images taken by Curiosity's navigation camera, numerous white spots and lines could be seen, which were caused by high-energy particles colliding with the camera sensor.

Source: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

June 13, 2024 – Nadia Podbrigar