MAVEN mission tracks streams of satellite-destroying 'solar energy particles'

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, or MAVEN spacecraft, has provided scientists their first look at a storm of energetic solar particles at Mars and produced unprecedented ultraviolet images of the tenuous oxygen, hydrogen and carbon coronas surrounding the Red Planet.

ANI| Last Updated: Oct 16, 2014, 14:32 PM IST

Washington: NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, or MAVEN spacecraft, has provided scientists their first look at a storm of energetic solar particles at Mars and produced unprecedented ultraviolet images of the tenuous oxygen, hydrogen and carbon coronas surrounding the Red Planet.

Solar Energetic Particles (SEPs) are streams of high-speed particles blasted from the Sun during explosive solar activity like flares or Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). Around Earth, SEP storms can damage the sensitive electronics on satellites. At Mars, they are thought to be one possible mechanism for driving atmospheric loss.

The hydrogen and oxygen coronas of Mars are the tenuous outer fringe of the planet's upper atmosphere, where the edge of the atmosphere meets space. In this region, atoms that were once a part of carbon dioxide or water molecules near the surface can escape to space, according to MAVEN scientists.

Water and carbon dioxide control the climate, so following them allows scientists to understand the history of Mars over the last four billion years and to track the change from a warm and wet climate to the cold, dry climate present today.

The 671 million dollars Mars MAVEN mission was launched toward Mars on Nov. 18, 2013, to help solve the mystery of how the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere.

The mission's principal investigator, Professor Bruce Jakosky University of Colorado Boulder, said that all of the instruments were now turned on, and although they were not yet fully checked out, they were functioning nominally and showed data quality that is better than anticipated at this early stage of the mission.

Mike Chaffin of the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences said, by measuring the extended upper atmosphere of the planet, MAVEN directly probed how these atoms escape to space. The observations support our current understanding that the upper atmosphere of Mars, when compared to Venus and Earth, is only tenuously bound by the planet's weak gravity.

The Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVs) also helped scientists create a map of the atmospheric ozone on Mars by detecting the absorption of ultraviolet sunlight by the molecule.

CU-Boulder Research Associate Justin Deighan, an IUVS team member from LASP, said that with these maps we have the kind of complete and simultaneous coverage of Mars that is usually only possible for Earth and on Mars, ozone is just easily destroyed by the byproducts of water vapor broken down by ultraviolet sunlight.

Researcher Deighen also added that tracking the ozone would let us track the photochemical processes taking place in the Martian atmosphere. (ANI)