Greg Giles | March 20, 2015 | 22:58
Excerpt from chroniclebulletin.com
University of Colorado-led Mars mission has observed two unexpected phenomena in the Martian atmosphere, unveiled Wednesday at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.
NASA describes the finds by MAVEN &mdash the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission &mdash as an unexplained high-altitude dust cloud, and an aurora, which was dubbed by scientists the “Christmas lights” simply because it was spotted for 5 days just prior to Dec. 25.
The presence of the dust at orbital altitudes from about 93 miles to 190 miles above the surface had not been expected. Despite the fact that the source and composition of the dust are not however recognized, NASA stated there is no hazard to MAVEN and other spacecraft orbiting Mars.
The aurora, observed by MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, was described by NASA as a bright ultraviolet auroral glow across the northern hemisphere of Mars. Auroras, typically identified on Earth as northern or southern lights, are triggered by energetic particles such as electrons getting into the atmosphere, causing the gas to glow.
Bruce Jakosky, at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, is principal investigator on the $637 million MAVEN mission. It entered the Mars orbit Sept. 21 after a 10-month journey across 442 million miles through space.
“The spacecraft and instruments are functioning pretty well, the information coming down are spectacular and we’re just functioning tough to realize what it really is telling us,” Jakosky said.
LASP professor Nick Schneider is the mission’s instrument lead on the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph.
“Ordinarily, issues type of calm down, even on a mission, about Christmas,” Schneider said. “But man, there was just a flurry of activity.”
“What’s specifically surprising about the aurora we saw is how deep in the atmosphere it happens &mdash much deeper than at Earth or elsewhere on Mars,” LASP investigation associate Arnaud Stiepen, an IUVS team member, stated in a news release. “The electrons producing it must be really energetic.”
Via the function of MAVEN, which launched Sept. 18, 2013, scientists hope to understand how the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere and significantly of its water. The spacecraft is 4 months into its a single-year major mission.
“The Earth has this astounding protective bubble with the magnetosphere, and it takes a fairly particular approach for earth’s magnetosphere to light up with an aurora,” Schneider stated. “But with Mars, it is a lot extra straightforward. These energetic particles from the sun have a significantly more direct path to the atmosphere, for the reason that Mars lacks that protective magnetosphere.
“I think it really is someplace between attainable and probable that future astronauts will be in a position to delight in the northern lights on Mars.”
The dust cloud was observed by the spacecraft’s Langmuir Probe and Waves instrument, and has been in proof the complete time MAVEN has been in operation. It is unknown if the cloud is short-term, or one thing of lengthy duration.
“It can be coming from above or be coming from beneath,” said LASP research associate Laila Andersson. She is co-principal investigator on the Langmuir Probe and Waves instrument.
“Where we see the dust so far, four months into the mission, it does not match what we would anticipate if it was coming from above. It much more matches what we would count on if it was coming from below &mdash but we do not however fully grasp the processes that are acting in the upper atmosphere where we are seeing it.”
Perhaps a single of the couple of certainties with the MAVEN mission was that there would be surprises.
“Correct now we’re studying a aspect of the Mars system that has not been explored in detail just before, so it is not surprising that we’re seeing new attributes and new processes,” Jakosky said.
The mission was set to run a single year. But that could transform.
“We’re in the procedure of discussing with NASA a probable extended mission, but no choices have been made yet,” Jakosky stated. “Surely, we have fascinating science we can continue to do in an extended mission, but that has not however been authorized.”
He mentioned the MAVEN group hopes to know by summer time regardless of whether the spacecraft’s mission will, in truth, be extended.
But just after the first four months of information collection, MAVEN scientists are saying so far, so pretty very good.
“Our cup runneth more than,” Schneider said. “Many instances over.”