Auroras and radiation from solar storms spotted on Mars

Recent solar storms have not only caused spectacular auroras across Earth but also affected Mars, revealing crucial data about the Red Planet’s radiation environment. These storms, stemming from heightened solar activity, have significant implications for future human missions to Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover has been instrumental in observing these effects, especially given Mars’ thin atmosphere, which poses a potentially hazardous radiation risk.


Solar Storm Impact on Curiosity

The solar storms’ impact is evident in the visual noise captured by Curiosity’s cameras. Charged particles from these storms hit the rover’s cameras, producing specks that look like snow or static in the images. Animations from Curiosity’s Navigation Camera (MSL) highlight these effects, showing the charged particles vividly. You can view these animations on NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website here and here.


Radiation Risks

If astronauts had been on Mars during such a storm, they would have received a radiation dose of 8,100 micrograys—equivalent to 30 chest X-rays. While not lethal, this spike in radiation is significant enough to require serious consideration for future Mars missions. Protecting astronauts from these radiation bursts is a priority for researchers.

One proposed solution is utilizing Mars’ natural landscape for protection. “Cliffsides or lava tubes could provide additional shielding for astronauts during such events,” explains Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute, the lead researcher on Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector instrument. Mars orbit or deep space would expose astronauts to even higher radiation levels, emphasizing the need for effective protection strategies.


Observations from Mars Orbit

NASA’s orbiting spacecraft also recorded the effects of the solar storms. For instance, one of Mars Odyssey’s cameras was knocked out for about an hour due to the storm. Additionally, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiter observed auroras over Mars. Unlike Earth, Mars lacks a global magnetic field, causing auroras through different mechanisms.


Increased Solar Activity

“This was the largest solar energetic particle event that MAVEN has ever seen,” said Christina Lee, MAVEN Space Weather Lead from UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. With several solar events occurring in recent weeks, Mars experienced multiple waves of particles hitting its surface.

These observations highlight the importance of understanding and mitigating radiation risks for future Mars missions. As solar activity continues, both Earth and Mars can expect more solar storms, underscoring the need for robust protective measures for astronauts venturing to the Red Planet.

Related to this, NASA is assisting with the launch of Europe’s Mars rover, and solar storms have created stunning auroras on Earth while also impacting missions like the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. As we prepare for future explorations, understanding these solar phenomena is crucial for ensuring the safety and success of human missions to Mars.