Hundreds of auroras detected on Mars
Contact: Robert Sanders
Phone: (510) 643-6998
Auroras similar to Earth's Northern Lights appear to be common on Mars,
according to physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, who have
analyzed six years' worth of data from the Mars Global Surveyor.
The discovery of hundreds of auroras over the past six years comes as a
surprise, since Mars does not have the global magnetic field that on Earth is
the source of the aurora borealis and the antipodal aurora australis.
According to the physicists, the auroras on Mars aren't due to a planet-wide
magnetic field, but instead are associated with patches of strong magnetic field
in the crust, primarily in the southern hemisphere. And they probably aren't as
colorful either, the researchers say: The energetic electrons that interact with
molecules in the atmosphere to produce the glow probably generate only
ultraviolet light - not the reds, greens and blues of Earth.
"The fact that we see auroras as often as we do is amazing," said UC Berkeley
physicist David A. Brain, the lead author of a paper on the discovery recently
accepted by the journal Geophysical Research Letters. "The discovery of auroras
on Mars teaches us something about how and why they happen elsewhere in the
solar system, including on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune."
Brain and Jasper S. Halekas, both assistant research physicists at UC Berkeley's
Space Sciences Laboratory, along with their colleagues from UC Berkeley, the
University of Michigan, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of
Toulouse in France, also reported their findings in a poster presented Friday,
Dec. 9, at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
Last year, the European spacecraft Mars Express first detected a flash of
ultraviolet light on the night side of Mars and an international team of
astronomers identified it as an auroral flash in the June 9, 2005, issue of
Nature. Upon hearing of the discovery, UC Berkeley researchers turned to data
from the Mars Global Surveyor to see if an on-board UC Berkeley instrument
package - a magnetometer-electron reflectometer - had detected other evidence of
auroras. The spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since September 1997 and since
1999 has been mapping from an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles) the Martian
surface and Mars' magnetic fields. It sits in a polar orbit that keeps it always
at 2 a.m. when on the night side of the planet.
Within an hour of first delving into the data, Brain and Halekas discovered
evidence of an auroral flash - a peak in the electron energy spectrum identical
to the peaks seen in spectra of Earth's atmosphere during an aurora. Since then,
they have reviewed more than 6 million recordings by the electron reflectometer
and found amid the data some 13,000 signals with an electron peak indicative of
an aurora. According to Brain, this may represent hundreds of nightside auroral
events like the flash seen by the Mars Express.
When the two physicists pinpointed the position of each observation, the auroras
coincided precisely with the margins of the magnetized areas on the Martian
surface. The same team, led by co-authors Mario H. Acuna of NASA's Goddard
Space Flight Center and Robert Lin, UC Berkeley professor of physics and
director of the Space Sciences Laboratory, has extensively mapped these surface
magnetic fields using the magnetometer/reflectometer aboard the Mars Global
Surveyor. Just as Earth's auroras occur where the magnetic field lines dive into
the surface at the north and south poles, Mars' auroras occur at the borders of
magnetized areas where the field lines arc vertically into the crust.
Of the 13,000 auroral observations so far, the largest seem to coincide with
increased solar wind activity.
"The flash seen by Mars Express seems to be at the bright end of energies that
are possible," Halekas said. "Just as on Earth, space weather and solar storms
tend to make the auroras brighter and stronger."
Earth's auroras are caused when charged particles from the sun slam into the
planet's protective magnetic field and, instead of penetrating to the ground,
are diverted along field lines to the pole, where they funnel down and collide
with atoms in the atmosphere to create an oval of light around each pole.
Electrons are a big proportion of the charged particles, and auroral activity is
associated with a physical process still not understood that accelerates
electrons, producing a telltale peak in the spectrum of electron energies.
The process on Mars is probably similar, Lin said, in that solar wind particles
are funneled around to the night side of Mars where they interact with crustal
field lines. The ultraviolet light is produced when the particles hit carbon
"The observations suggest some acceleration process occurs like on Earth," he
said. "Something has taken the electrons and given them a kick."
What that "something" is remains a mystery, though Lin and his UC Berkeley
colleagues lean towards a process called magnetic reconnection, where the
magnetic field traveling with the solar wind particles breaks and reconnects
with the crustal field. The reconnecting field lines could be what flings the
particles to higher energies.
The surface magnetic fields, Brain said, are produced by highly magnetized rock
that occurs in patches up to 1,000 kilometers wide and 10 kilometers deep. These
patches probably retain magnetism left from when Mars had a global field in a
way similar to what occurs when a needle is stroked with a magnet, inducing
magnetization that remains even after the magnet is withdrawn. When Mars' global
field died out billions of years ago, the solar wind was able to strip the
atmosphere away. Only the strong crustal fields are still around to protect
portions of the surface.
"We call them mini-magnetospheres, because they are strong enough to stand off
the solar wind," Lin said, noting that the fields extend up to 1,300 kilometers
above the surface. Nevertheless, the strongest Martian magnetic field is 50
times weaker than the field at the Earth's surface. It's hard to explain how
these fields are able to funnel and accelerate the solar wind efficiently enough
to generate an aurora, he said.
Brain, Halekas, Lin and their colleagues hope to mine the Mars Global Surveyor
data for more information on the auroras and perhaps join with the European team
operating the Mars Express to get complementary data on the flashes that could
solve the mystery of their origin.
"Mars Global Surveyor was designed for a lifetime of 685 days, but it has been
very valuable for more than six years now, and we are still getting great
results," Lin observed.
The work was supported by NASA. Coauthors with Brain, Halekas, Lin and Acuna
are Laura M. Peticolas, Janet G. Luhmann, David L. Mitchell and Greg T. Delory
of UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory; Steve W. Bougher of the University
of Michigan; and Henri Rème of the Centre d'Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements in