The Emirates Mars Mission Discovers the Mysterious New Martian Aurora

The UAE Mars Exploration Mission, the first interplanetary exploration by an Arab country, today released stunning images of the mysterious, discrete auroras of Mars, following a series of revolutionary observations that promise new answers – and new questions – about the interactions between Mars’ atmosphere and the planet’s magnetic fields. and solar wind.
The observations include a never-before-seen phenomenon, which the EMM team dubbed ‘split zigzag auroras’, a massive, worm-like auroras that extends halfway around the Red Planet.

“When we first imaged the separate Martian auroras shortly after the Hope probe arrived at Mars in 2021, we knew we had unveiled new capabilities for unprecedented observations at this scale, and we made the decision to increase our focus on these auroras.” Hessa Al Matrooshi, Chief Scientific Officer of the UAE Mars Exploration Mission, said: “We can get nearly blanket snapshots of the entire disk of the atmosphere to investigate atmospheric phenomena and interactions. This means we’re seeing discrete auroral effects on a massive scale and in ways we never expected.”

The winding, winding aurora consists of long, worm-like streaks of energetic electron emission into the upper atmosphere spanning several thousand kilometers, extending from the day side to the night side of Mars. Photographed when Mars was experiencing the impact of a solar storm, resulting in a faster and more turbulent flow of solar wind electrons than usual, these observations of the aurora borealis are among the brightest and most comprehensive yet that Hope has seen. They include rectangular shapes, which may be caused by elongated regions similar to the electron activation conditions in the magnetic tail.

The interplanetary magnetic field is carried by the solar wind and curtains around Mars, combined with magnetism in the Martian crust to form the Mars magnetic tail, a complex set of magnetic fields on the side of the Martian nights.

Imran Sharaf, EMM Project Manager, said, “Having the additional bandwidth and resources available to us means we may be opportunistic and focus more on the discrete aurora borealis region than we originally planned. This speed has definitely paid off because we have now opened up whole new ways to investigate these Transient and dynamic phenomena. The new science was a primary objective of the mission and this is certainly new.”

Observations made with Hope’s EMUS instrument (UAE Mars Ultraviolet Spectrometer) range from wavelengths of 90-180 nm. The ultraviolet emission found at a wavelength of 130.4 nanometers, imaged in the new set of observations, shows where energetic electrons collide with atoms and molecules in Mars’ upper atmosphere, about 130 km above the planet’s surface.

These electrons come from the solar wind and are energized by electric fields in the Martian magnetosphere.

Dr. Rob Lillis, a member of the EMUS team at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “The separate meandering aurora was a shocking discovery that in many ways made us scratch our heads back to the drawing board. We have ideas, but no solid explanation for why we’re observing intense auroras in this form and on planetary scales.” We now have an opportunity to re-examine previous observations of Mars by missions like MAVEN and Mars Express to look for signatures that could clarify the new HOPE observations and perhaps help us try to de-select what’s going on here.”

Electrons follow magnetic field lines, so their paths to the atmosphere are determined by the magnetic fields in this environment. New observations made by Hope include ‘encapsulated’ field lines, which do not touch the nocturnal atmosphere, ‘closed’ field lines connecting to the crust at both ends, and ‘open’ field lines connecting the crust to the solar wind. These “open” field lines direct electrons toward the atmosphere in sometimes complex patterns, which are then reflected in the resulting ultraviolet emission detected by EMUS. These emissions are known as “discrete auroras” because they are spatially confined.

Besides the auroras defined by Mars’ crustal field, the complex shapes of the energetic electron effect observed by Hope open up new avenues for our understanding of the way in which planetary and solar interactions affect the dynamics of Mars’ atmosphere.

Three types of auroras have previously been observed around Mars: diffuse auroras are observed only during intense solar storms, when interactions with the highest energy particles cause the atmosphere to illuminate the entire planet. By contrast, discrete aurorae are highly localized and the observations made thus far seem to corroborate the theory that they are directly related to the irregular magnetic fields produced by ferromagnetic minerals embedded in the Martian crust. Both of these auroras are observed on the night side of Mars, while a third class, the proton auroras, have been measured on the Martian days side driven by interactions between the solar wind and hydrogen in Mars’ exosphere.

These three types of aurora have been previously identified, but clear global images of separate aurorae were elusive until new observations were made by the EMM probe shortly after it reached Mars. Now, the increased focus on separate aurora observations by the EMM science team has led to the observation of this new phenomenon of separate meandering auroras. “Since those first observations of separate aurorae, we have continued to see amazing new patterns of auroras that open new insights into the interactions of charged particles in the Martian atmosphere,” said Al Matrooshi. “There is too much new information here for the EMM science team to work with.”

One of the three instruments aboard the Mars Hope Probe, EMUS’s main science objective is to measure oxygen and carbon monoxide in the Martian thermosphere and the diversity of hydrogen and oxygen in the exosphere.

Hope tracks its planned scientific orbit between 20,000 and 43,000 km, with a 25 degree inclination to Mars. The probe completes one orbit of the planet every 55 hours and captures a full sample of planetary data every nine days throughout its two-year mission to map Mars’ atmospheric dynamics.

The EMM and Hope probe is the culmination of a knowledge transfer and development effort that began in 2006, which has seen Emirati engineers work with partners around the world to advance the design, engineering and manufacturing capabilities of the UAE’s spacecraft. Hope is a fully autonomous spacecraft, carrying three instruments to measure the Martian atmosphere. Weighing around 1,350 kilograms, and roughly the size of a small SUV, the vehicle was designed and developed by MBRSC engineers working with academic partners, including LASP at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Arizona State University and University of California, Berkeley.

The Emirates Mars Exploration Mission studies the Martian atmosphere and the relationship between the upper layer and the lower region and, for the first time, allows the international scientific community to have full access to a comprehensive view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day, through different seasons. Scientific data is released quarterly, with the information freely available globally to researchers and enthusiasts,

The arrival of the historic Probe of Hope to the Red Planet coincided with a year of celebrations marking the golden jubilee of the United Arab Emirates in 2021.

About the UAE mission to explore Mars

Announced in July 2014 by the President of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the UAE mission to explore Mars was developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Center Space Agency (MBRSC), jointly with its knowledge transfer partners and funded by the Emirates Space Agency.

Designed to disrupt and accelerate the space sector in the UAE by forming a scientific community, and promoting space education in the country, the probe aims to build the first complete picture of the Martian climate over the course of the Martian year.

The Hope probe reached Mars orbit in 2021, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates, which became an independent country on December 2, 1971.

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