Solar flare hit Mars sparking planet-wide​ aurora brighter​ than any ever seen

Artist concept of aurora on Mars. Credit: NASA

NASA says an unexpected blast of solar energy hit Mars last month and it created an aurora on the Red Planet that caused it to light up with ultra-violet light.

Sonal Jain of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics says the September 11 storm lit up Mars like a light bulb.

This animation shows the sudden appearance of a bright aurora on Mars during the solar storm. The purple-white color scheme shows the intensity of ultraviolet light over the course of the event. The Imaging is from the Ultraviolet Spectrograph on NASA’s MAVEN orbiter. Credits: NASA/Univ. of Colorado

Coronal mass ejections from the sun can cause dramatic auroras on Earth, and powerful flares can disrupt communications. When a solar flare hits Earth, it often creates an aurora in the northern or southern poles. Aurora’s in the Northern Hemisphere are commonly referred to as the Northern Lights.

“An aurora on Mars can envelop the entire planet because Mars has no strong magnetic field like Earth’s to concentrate the aurora near polar regions,” said Jain. “The energetic particles from the Sun also can be absorbed by the upper atmosphere, increasing its temperature and causing it to swell up.”

Jain who is a member of MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph instrument team says the September flare sparked a global aurora at Mars more than 25 times brighter than any previously seen by the MAVEN orbiter.

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“If you were outdoors on a Mars walk and learned that an event like this was imminent, you would definitely want to take shelter”

MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission has been studying the Martian atmosphere since 2014.

The solar explosion hitting Mars also produced radiation levels higher than anything ever recorded by the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been on mars since 2012.

What if humans had been on Mars?

Energetic particles from a massive solar storm in September 2017 were seen both in Mars orbit by NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, and on the surface of Mars by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Colorado/SwRI-Boulder/UC Berkeley

NASA says highly energetic solar events can significantly increase the radiation that penetrates through the atmosphere to the Mars surface. The increased radiation also interacts with the environment to produce additional, secondary particles, which need to be understood and shielded against to ensure the safety of future human explorers.

“If you were outdoors on a Mars walk and learned that an event like this was imminent, you would definitely want to take shelter, just as you would if you were on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station,” said RAD Principal Investigator Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute’s Boulder, Colorado, office.

“To protect our astronauts on Mars in the future, we need to continue to provide this type of space weather monitoring there.”

These images from the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph on NASA’s MAVEN orbiter show the appearance of a bright aurora on Mars during a solar storm in September 2017. The purple-white colors show the intensity of ultraviolet light on Mars’ night side before (left) and during (right) the event. Credits: NASA/Univ. of Colorado

On September 29, Elon Musk announced that he wants SpaceX to fly people to Mars by 2024.

The recent spike in radiation is something the SpaceX team will need to take into account.

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