Mars being blasted by solar energy possibly creating global auroras

Multiple strong flares have been directed toward Mars, including one on May 16 that was the strongest in 10 years, according to scientists working on NASA’s Mars spacecraft MAVEN.

Massive sunspot areas that brought near global displays of aurora lights earlier this month on Earth are now targeting Mars and creating intense solar weather on the Red Planet.

Activity from the Sun that put on a Northern Lights show seen as far south as Florida earlier this month has arrived at Mars, blasting the Red Planet with strong solar flares and radiation, according to data from multiple NASA missions on the ground and orbiting Mars.  

NASA’s Perseverance Rover has been using the cameras on its mast to take photos of the large sunspot areas. Sunspots are often associated with eruptions of energy from the Sun, known as solar flares. Last week, the most intense Mars-directed flare in years blasted from the Sun.  


Two active regions on the Sun are visible below, as taken by Perseverance on May 14.

After creating the strongest flare seen on Earth in years, the active sunspot regions are directing that energy toward Mars through solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME). According to scientists working on NASA's Mars orbiter MAVEN, multiple strong flares have been directed toward Mars, including one on May 16 that was the strongest in 10 years. 

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the flare reached Mars on May 16 and teams with the MAVEN orbiter and NASA Curiosity rover are using instruments to study the recent space weather

Mars does not receive protection from radiation by an atmosphere like Earth does. The Red Planet once had a dense atmosphere, but gradually, it has been losing its atmosphere to space weather.


MAVEN arrived in Mars orbit in 2014 and was designed to learn what has contributed to the planet's loss of atmosphere, including solar flares and CMEs, which makes the approaching Solar Maximum even more exciting to MAVEN’s team. 

MAVEN’s Extreme Ultraviolet Monitor (EUVM) instrument measures the energy from the Sun. According to the instrument's deputy principal investigator, Thursday's flare was the largest to hit Mars in 10 years.

"Looking at the measurements of the flare from Mars using the Extreme Ultraviolet Monitor (EUVM) onboard MAVEN, this is by far the largest flare we’ve seen since MAVEN arrived at Mars in 2014," said Ed Thieman, the deputy PI for MAVEN’s EUVM instrument.

MAVEN's team continues to review atmospheric measurements to assess the impacts. Still, Thieman said that based on previous space weather events, the solar flare likely hit the Martian upper atmosphere, possibly doubling the temperature for a few hours and even creating global auroras. 


"The CME launched by the flare is on its way, and it may cause global-scale aurora and energize Mars’s upper ionosphere and magnetosphere. Both the flare and the CME are expected to temporarily increase the loss of Mars’s atmosphere to space, and we’re keenly interested in using MAVEN to measure these really big events because it gives us a window into how the earlier and more active Sun eroded away Mars’s once-thick atmosphere creating the cold and arid planet we see today," Thieman said.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has a radiation detector on the robot to measure the radiation on the Red Planet after a space weather event like the flares this past week. 

Studying the radiation and the recent solar weather will help inform NASA on how to protect future human missions to the Red Planet.