Mars, a solar storm made it possible to detect the quantities of radiation hitting the planet

A recent solar storm provided more details on the amount of radiation future astronauts may encounter on missions to Mars.

Over the past month, NASA’s Martian rovers and orbiters have provided researchers with a trove of data on solar flares and coronal mass ejections that strike Mars – in some cases, even causing Martian auroras. This provided an unprecedented opportunity to study how such events unfold in deep space, and allowed the quantities to be detected and exposure of radiation that the first astronauts on Mars could meet. The largest event occurred on May 20 with a solar flare later estimated to be an X12 (X-class solar flares are the most powerful of several types) based on data from the Solar Orbiter space probe. There solar storm has emitted X-rays and gamma rays towards the planet Red, while a subsequent coronal mass ejection launched charged particles. Moving at the speed of light, the flare’s X-rays and gamma rays arrived first, while the charged particles lagged slightly behind, reaching Mars in just tens of minutes.

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Solar radiation

Here’s how NASA’s MAVEN and the agency’s Curiosity rover study solar flares and radiation on Mars during solar maximum, a period when the Sun is at its most active. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/SDO/MSSS/University of Colorado

The development of space weather has been closely monitored by analysts from the Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who have flagged the possibility of incoming charged particles following the ejection of coronal mass. If the astronauts had been standing next to NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at the time, they would have received a radiation dose of 8,100 micrograys, equivalent to 30 chest X-rays. While not deadly, it was the largest increase measured by Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) since the rover landed 12 years ago.

The RAD data will help scientists plan for the highest level of radiation exposure astronauts might experience on a mission to Mars to understand what protections would be needed. During the May 20 event, so much energy from the storm hit the surface that black-and-white images from Curiosity’s navigation cameras appeared to detect actual “snowflakes”: white streaks and specks caused by particles. charges hitting the cameras.

Similarly, the star camera used by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter for orientation in 2001 was flooded with energy from solar particles, which momentarily shut down – in any case Odyssey has other systems for orientation and has restored the camera within an hour. Even with the short amount of time in its star camera, the orbiter collected vital data on X-rays, gamma rays and charged particles using its high-energy neutron detector.

This wasn’t Odyssey’s first encounter with a solar flare: In 2003, solar particles from a solar flare eventually estimated to be an of that magnitude).

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Auroras on Mars

Mars solar storm
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured black-and-white streaks and specks using one of its navigation cameras just as particles from a solar storm arrived on the Martian surface. These visual artifacts are caused by energetic particles hitting the camera’s image detector. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

High above Curiosity, NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiter captured another effect of recent solar activity: bright auroras on the planet. But the way these auroras occur is different from those seen on Earth. Our home planet is in fact protected from charged particles by a robust magnetic field, which normally limits auroras to regions close to the poles.

Mars instead lost its internally generated magnetic field in the ancient past, so there is no protection from the barrage of energetic particles. When charged particles hit the Martian atmosphere, auroras occur that engulf the entire planet. During solar events, the Sun releases a wide range of energetic particles, and only the most powerful can reach the surface and be measured by RAD. Slightly less energetic particles, the ones that cause auroras, are detected by MAVEN’s Solar Energetic Particle instrument.

Scientists can use data from that instrument to reconstruct a timeline of every minute the solar particles passed by, meticulously analyzing how the event evolved. Data from NASA’s space probe won’t just help future planetary missions to the Red Planet. It is contributing to the collection of a large amount of information by the agency’s other heliophysics missions, including Voyager, Parker Solar Probe and the upcoming ESCAPADE (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers) mission.

With a launch expected in late 2024, ESCAPADE’s twin small satellites will orbit Mars and observe space weather from a unique dual perspective, more detailed than MAVEN can currently measure on its own.


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